The room I was hustled into was pure chaos. The noise almost had me turning tail and running. But then I was pushed into a quieter area. A woman took the paper that had been taped to my backpack but when she tried to take the pack I jerked it away from her. She finally gave up and started reading the form.
“Honestly, can’t the field people do anything right?” she complained in a huff. “There’s no name on here. Hey kid, what’s your name?” When I just looked at her and refused to answer she mumbled, “Great, another uncommunicative to deal with.” She taped the screen of her computer terminal a couple of times and then told me, “Let’s see that makes you … Jane Doe 1062.”
She gave me a very cursory examination and noted my basic vital statics before handing me over to a big woman in nursing scrubs that she called Nurse Mannecheck. The woman read over the paperwork and shook her head. She looked down at me and said, “Girl, if you ever want to get called anything other than Jane just come up to the desk and well fix your name badge.”
I was taken to a large community room and the noise was once again overwhelming. When I seemed to be glued to one spot the large woman dragged me over to an older girl and said, “I hate to ask but here’s another one. Just make sure she gets in line and gets some food until she figures out how to survive in here with the rest of you savages.”
The girl looked at me like I was a cockroach and then glanced at my name tag. “Girl, I done got too many Janes to look after. Either you keep up or I don’t care what that fat !@#$% says, you can starve for all I care.”
The older girl “watched me” for two meals and then there were other new kids that she needed to initiate into life at Central. It only took once for me to learn that the cafeteria people tried to give all the kids equal amounts but that it would be up to me to keep someone from stealing it right off my tray.
As soon as something was handed to me I was eating it. By the time I got to the end of the line all that was left was to pick up the bottle of water or juice, or carton of milk they handed out there and drink it as fast as I could. Then I walked right over to the window where we were supposed to stack our trays and dropped it off tray and utensils off. There wasn’t much on the tray but sometimes I would squirrel away a bottle of water or a granola bar for later … or for a bribe so that a bigger kid would leave me alone..
I didn’t speak to anyone. Period. I didn’t answer questions. Period. I didn’t ask questions. Period. I didn’t make all the noise the other kids made. I didn’t cry, not even when I would get hit or pushed to the floor. Period, period, period. After a while everyone thought I was mute. But I could fight … and people learned to leave me alone. The biggest problem that people made for me was that I wouldn’t put my backpack down, not ever. It went everywhere I went, even the bathroom and shower. I took the zipper tabs off to keep kids from pulling them and ripped the plastic off a mattress to wrap everything in to keep it dry.
All of us kids had some type of issue and it was no wonder. Most of us slept fully clothed, including our shoes; if you didn’t you never knew if you’d have anything left come morning. Hygiene items were handed out sparingly by the staff but they needn’t have bothered because hardly anyone seemed to use them on a regular basis. But the one thing the staff did make sure of was that at least once a week you took a shower. Without exception. Even if they had to hose you off and scrub you down with a broom.
Food was the one thing that everyone seemed to fight over. That and shoes. After a couple of months everyone’s shoes were so raggedy that no one cared so it was down to food. One time an older boy tried to take something off my dinner tray while we were in line. That was definitely against the rules but what happened when an adult wasn’t looking was ignored by the staff for the most part; the staff only noticed when they were forced to. And if they were forced to notice, they made it unpleasant for everyone because it meant they had to take action. We’d been on lock down that morning because of a bunch of fighting in the boys’ wing and we’d missed both breakfast and lunch. We were all hungry and more than a little angry. So this guy tries to take my sandwich and I stabbed him in the hand with my fork.
I could see in his eyes that I was going to get beat on but then a couple of the older girls stepped up and shouted him down, “It’s you and your crew that got us all missing meals. You don’t wanna find a shiv stuck some place it’s gonna hurt so you just better back off. We don’t need no more trouble. If you’re hungry go look in the mirror and blame your own self.”
I didn’t get hit that time, but there were other times that I did … but I learned to take it and I learned to dish it out. But everyone grew to learn that so long as you left me alone I’d leave you alone. Fine by me. They also learned that if you didn’t leave me alone I’d make you sorry … I fought dirty; for that matter I still do. There’s not much difference between this place and the streets except the beds are softer and the clothes are cleaner, beyond that, it’s still a zoo just a different type.
Then there was the time that some older boys got into a fight out on the basketball court. I had only been pushing the guy away so he wouldn’t step on my feet but apparently he’d had a shiv and had been about to cut the other guy he was fighting with. Somehow or other I went from being alone to being part of a group. “Com’ on Girl. You can sit with my little sister. Maybe if I let you hang around she won’t always be cryin’ and makin’ noise.”
The kids gave up calling me Jane before the adults did but eventually everyone called me Girl. It was the only thing I responded to so if they wanted my attention they had to do it my way. That was my general attitude about everything. I looked after JD’s little sister so long as no one asked me to. If she didn’t ask me I would comb her hair and braid it. I kept the other kids from bothering her because if they caused her problems and made her cry then it caused me problems from JD. And I didn’t push her out when she started crawling into my bed after lights out in the girls’ dorm when things really did turn into a jungle.
Things pretty much went on this way for about six months and then some invisible point was reached and my world blew up … again. There were too many kids for too few adults to manage. We pretty much ran things ourselves and the adults were only there for appearances sake. The only authority lay not in the hands of the security guards who stayed outside the fences but in the hands of the gangs. The rules were unwritten but easy to follow. You stayed in your group unless you wanted to be beat on. You didn’t mess with anyone higher up the food chain than you unless you wanted to be beat on. If you were a little kid you stayed out of the business of the big kids unless you wanted to be beat on. You owed loyalty to whatever big kid brought you into the group and if you didn’t show up when there was a throw down you were going to get beat on anyway.
But things were ok so long as there was food and water and electricity to keep the TVs and video games and stereos running. We’d all noticed that the pickings at meals had gotten slim but it was always there … then one day it wasn’t. And then the water went. And then the electricity. And then there were no adults. And then there was anarchy and chaos.
The infrastructure of the country had fallen apart; it was everyone for themselves and the orphans in the processing centers were forgotten about in the melee. Not just here but everywhere. Too many sick and dying people around the world. Not enough built in cushion to get everyone over the hump.
The war, once thought to be in the midst of peace talks, escalated again and I don’t know what happened to the world for a while. No one really does, or if they do they don’t talk about it. No one knows who won yet so they haven’t written the history books. I can tell you what happened where I was.
Our gang ran. There was no food, no water, no nothing to keep us locked up. It was a dumb time of year to do it though. It was turning November and getting cold. Some of the older kids knew we needed to get set up and took us to their old neighborhoods. No one wanted us there and they tried to run us off. There wasn’t enough of anything for the people already living there and the adults wanted what remained all for themselves. So the street rats were born.
We hunted through garbage just like all the other homeless people. We wore whatever rags we could find to stay warm. We dismantled buildings for wood to burn. We scavenged and ate stuff even vultures would have puked up. Most of us lost our humanity and dignity, what little had been left to us. We were violent and determined. One day was just like the next and the only thing that mattered was seeing the sun come up.
The inner cities emptied out that winter. A lot of people died of starvation or exposure. The same thing was true of the thousands of street rats that populated the hells of the inner cities all over the country. Only rarely did we venture out to the suburbs and never to the country side. We had to be absolutely desperate to risk it. The adults there were not as weak as the ones in the cities. They treated us like vermin. And in the countryside there were guns that could be used against us as easily as they were used against wild animals.
Sometimes we’d find guns of our own, but guns are just fancy clubs when you run out of bullets for them. The adult gangs had guns but they learned not to hunt street rats unless they wanted a vermin problem of mammoth proportions. Most of us were loners or living in small pseudo-family groups but if you gave us reasons we would mob you like a flock of vicious blackbirds. Hunting us with guns wasn’t the only reason we would band together but it was one of the times we were at our most vicious.
With the cities emptied or emptying, we street rats took over. Each person or group had a home base and that’s where we would bring things back to for squirreling away. If you were part of a group anything brought back was communally owned. If any member was caught holding something back they could be shunned or kicked out and with the way winter was going that was as good as a death sentence for a street rat that wasn’t self-sufficient.
Good things did happen sometimes, that was what happened to my little charge and her big brother JD, the one who had brought me into the gang. The boy had gone to see if his aunt and uncle still lived in their old place and he caught them right before they left to go to another family member’s home far away from the city. They were so happy to see their nephew and niece and find out that they were still alive that the came and fetched the little girl from me and took them with them that very day. My parents would have called that a blessing, but I was alone again and decided from there on out to stay that way.
Before that winter was over a lot of the street rats had died of cold. They died of starvation. They died of bad food as well. Some of the adult gangs that wanted the territory for themselves had found a way to rid themselves of their competition. They would put poisoned garbage out as bait. We learned to be very careful of anything that looked too good. Because if it looked too good to be true, it most likely was.
Four years went by like this. The fighting. The scurrying. The sneaking. The hiding. Day in and day out, it was always the same. I wasn’t the only one to lose their speech. If a street rat lived long enough to be older they generally made their way into the membership of the adult gangs. The girls especially enjoyed this privilege though I didn’t see how what they had to do to stay in the gang was much of a privilege.
Staying alive was the big if. Death was always waiting around the corner, shadowing us. It came in all shapes and sizes and even the best among us sometimes fell to its teeth and claws.