from The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns (1997)
Babies Making Babies (pp. 230-236)
It isn't about the welfare check. It never was.
It isn't about sexual permissiveness, or personal morality, or failures in parenting, or lack of family planning. All of these are inherent in the disaster, but the purposefulness with which babies make babies in places like West Baltimore goes far beyond accident and chance, circumstance and misunderstanding. It's about more than the sexual drives of adolescents, too, though that might be hard to believe! in a country where sex alone is enough of an argument to make anyone do just about anything. In Baltimore, a city with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, the epidemic is, at its root, about human expectation, or more precisely, the absence of expectation. On Fayette Street, the babies are born simply because they can be born, because life in this place cannot and will not be lived in the future tense. Given that fact, there is no reason to wait. The babies speak to these child-mothers and child-fathers, justify them, touch their hearts in a way that nothing else in their lives ever will. The government, the schools, the social workers, the public-service announcements wedged in between every black-family-in-the-burbs sitcom all wail out the same righteous warning: Wait, don't make the mistake, don't squander every opportunity in life by having a child too young. But the children of Fayette Street look around them and wonder where an opportunity might actually be found. The platitude is precisely that, and no one is fooled.
From the moment that the children down here have any awareness at all, they are shaped by a process that demands that they shed all hope, that they cast off all but street-level ambition, learning to think and feel and breathe in ways that allow only for day-to-day survival. These children are not entirely unloved, or entirely unattended-- even most of those growing up in the worst rowhouse hovels manage to reach adolescence in one piece, clothed and physically healthy. Fathering might be a lost concept, but on a rudimentary level, most of the mothers still manage some nurturing even in shooting galleries and crack dens. The love is there, but it makes itself felt only at odd moments, as an afterthought to the greater game of the corner.
True parenthood is more than love or intent or a set of learned skills; it's all of that practiced relentlessly. On Fayette Street, the men and women of the corner know what to do and sometimes, when the blast is there, they actually do it. But the game itself is relentless; when the blast is late, there's no time for love's expression.
Constancy becomes a luxury, so that a regular player at Fayette and Mount can love his son with the intensity of any father, yet when confronted by a choice between a tester line and a trip to the Bon Secours E.R. with a hurt child-well, there is no choice. Both his son's arms are fractured from a bicycle fall, but Daddy ain't trying to hear about medical emergencies. Damn if he ain't a medical emergency all
to himself. So the scene is that of a grown man backpedaling from his son toward the touts, mumbling a last-minute suggestion that some ointment might do the trick. Day after day, the small promises that knit families together are frayed and unraveled: meals that aren't prepared; weekend trips that never manage to find the right weekend; school clothes that aren't there in time for September. Ultimately, the quiet moments that a parent and child ought always to have, the confidences and affection shared around a breakfast table, or at a bedside, or out on the rowhouse steps-- these, too, become casualties of the corner. In time, it becomes clear to the children of Fayette Street that their look, their smile, even their unqualified love will never be enough to bring them what they need. Their cues go unnoticed by men and women obsessed.
So expectations change; tactics, too. The children learn that if they want to get fed, they better nag or whine: Ma, I'm hungry. Can I hold a piece of that there? Can I? Ma? In time, the begging becomes confrontational, demanding: I'm telling you. I can't go to school 'cause I ain't gonna wear these rags no more. Ma, you said you was gonna take me shopping at Westside. When you gonna take me shopping like you was sayin'? The most important relationship in their lives is disappointing them, failing them, redefining them as less than they ought to be. This is the lesson that most carry from childhood: Even the most intimate relationship is essentially a construct of struggle and barter. Love is something to be spoken of, but rarely demonstrated.
Yet for the corner world, the lesson makes absolute sense. Children grow up in the Fayette Street rowhouses learning the manner by which human beings get and take what they need from one another. By adolescence, they understand that no one survives by carrying long-term expectations into any relationship, by giving of themselves, by risking anything valuable for the sake of that relationship. They watch their mothers scratch and claw their way through a string of failing, semi-hostile couplings-- each running its predictable course, each fueled by genuine need and desire, yet built from such thin emotional material that it is less an act of human commitment than an exercise in planned obsolescence. They see their fathers-- if, indeed, they see their fathers-- hovering at the fringes, drifting in and out of the family as bit players, unable to provide and unwilling to commit. More likely than not, the men .are on another path, caught up-- in new girlfriends, new addresses, new ambitions-- all of it as fleeting and temporal as what came before.
With such grounding, the children venture into the streets, clumping into grade-school packs-- boys with boys, girls with girls-- and their play becomes savage as they crimp each other, honing the skills essential to the neighborhood. Their size, their shape, the quirks of their personalities-- as with children anywhere, these things give them their early status, their reputation in the clique. But on Fayette Street,
status exists only as it relates to the corner: This one can punch hardest, that one can shout loudest. This one can scheme and creep, that one is crazy and capable of anything. They each make their first pass at the game, and after an ugly failure or two, even the weakest manages to find a niche because that's the timeless truth of the comer: It's there for all of them, waiting and ready.
When the blood begins to warm, their status in the game is all that will matter, and what works on the comer will work with the girls. Sexual tribute will be paid to the hardest, the most daring, the craziest-- but primarily to the teenaged slinger who at that moment carries the manicured bankroll.
For the corner boys and corner girls both, money becomes the centerpiece of a mating dance as ritualized as anything the middle-class mind might conjure. It begins with teenaged banter within the pack, with fourteen-and fifteen-year-old boys matching their wit and words with girls a year or two younger. The banter becomes flirtatious, and the flirtation ultimately produces the first, small transaction.
"Buy you a soda?"
If she's willing, it won't end with an Orange Slice. In the Victorian ideal, such conventions as love, fidelity, and personal commitment are the price to be paid, but those conventions can't and don't exist on Fayette Street. Instead, every embrace, every grope, every tryst is preceded and secured by a material exchange. For the girls, the process isn't remotely connected to prostitution. It is, instead, about validation, about being able to have your personal worth displayed and proven with measurable evidence. It makes no difference that a young girl from Fayette and Fulton might genuinely like a boy who hangs at Baltimore and Gilmore. The geography of such a courtship demands that both play out their roles, that the boy give up some bills for his girl's movie tickets and cheesesteaks and Nikes and jewelry, just as it demands that that girl part with her affections, measure for measure. Anything less from either party would constitute profound disrespect, so that in the eyes of the entire pack, the boy might easily be savaged as small-time and off-brand and the girl, if she tolerated such and still gave herself, might simply be branded a freak.
So the ritual brings the children of Fayette Street together, but they arrive burdened with the common awareness that nothing that passes between them can possibly last. They couple with little expectation that the relationship will succeed-- if, indeed, any sexual relationship between fifteen- and fourteen-year-olds ever could-- because no relationship they've ever known has ever succeeded. They find each other, copulate, and disengage; then they deconstruct the personal connections and move on. Anything beyond that would require real personal risk, a giving of the self that has nothing to do with the original terms of the transaction and can be justified only by a belief in tomorrow. To reveal one's self to another is to lay bare weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and to do so on Fayette Street is to violate the rules of the corner.
For their parents-- or, more likely, for their parents' parents-- legitimate birth and the nuclear family was at least a goal toward which you could strive. By contrast, this generation and much of the one before it have discarded even the pretense of that structure; whatever guilt haunted their fathers and grandfathers no longer nags at these young minds. On Fayette Street, the children have simply discarded the entire premise.
Shorn of all deeper meanings, what remains for this generation are the essentials: sex and babies. And because sex and babies, rather than fidelity and commitment, are the known terminus of any relationship, maturity has become utterly irrelevant. If validation requires only sexual capacity, then the mothers-to-be waiting on the plastic chairs at the obstetrics clinics at University Hospital and Johns Hopkins can be sixteen. Or fourteen. Or twelve.
Accident is not at all the word for it.
Most of these babies are very much wanted by the mothers and fathers alike. What better legacy for a sixteen-year-old slinger who expects to be dead or in prison by age twenty? What greater personal justification for a teenaged girl thirsting for the unequivocal love of another being? To outsiders, the babies are mistakes to be calculated in terms of social cost, as ward-of-the-state harbingers of yet another generation destined to spin through the cycle of poverty. But to the children suckled on the nihilism of the corner, such an outcome isn't the sum of all fears. Poverty and failure is what they know; it's what they accept for themselves every day and, by extension, what they accept for their children as well. For the child-fathers, the future is guns and vials and broken pavement; for the child-mothers, it is life as a twenty-two-year-old welfare mother, barefoot on the rowhouse steps, with the toddlers stumbling around her. And what, other than six years, is the substantive difference between a sixteen-year-old and a twenty-two-year-old welfare mother?
That the government pays something is helpful, of course. But the truth is that the government pays the mothers of Fayette Street only $234 a month and maybe $40 more for each new addition. Add food stamps and free formula from the WIC program and it's enough to put Gerbers and Pampers in the grocery bag, but hardly enough to justify all the birthing. At this level, the conservative impulse to snatch at the purse seems beside the point: It's not the lure of check-day that provokes these children to make children; something stronger than a couple hundred dollars is at issue, something that goes to the heart of the matter. Check or no check, the babies will come. That we, as outsiders, know better is hardly the point. That we see lives stunted and consigned to poverty doesn't matter because in the
minds of these children, their lives were already consigned there. That we know the young fathers will give up and wander off means little, because on some level, the girls themselves know this too. They know from the get-go that the relationship is emotionally finite and they quickly reap what they can in status, gratification, and babies, then let the boys wander. On Fayette Street, it's never about relationships, or boyfriends, or marriage, or living happily ever after.
Down here, a child is answer enough.
Once again, we know only what it is that works in our world, and so we talk welfare reform, devising middle-class solutions for a middle-class society. But, as they have with drugs and the drug trade itself, the men and women of the corner have judged our moral code useless under the circumstances. And they are right. As every fiend on Fayette Street knows that his place is at the point of a needle, so, too, does every teenager find some meaning in the obstetrics ward at University or the birthing rooms at Sinai. There, a girl acquires some womanhood; she is, for one dependent soul at least, the center of the universe. The father, a morbid and fatalistic boy, gives the infant his name and measures his doomed self to be one shade less mortal. If it didn't do this much for them-- if it was just about condoms, or abortion-on-demand, or abstinence and shame-- then there might be a social strategy with some chance of success. Instead, these children have concluded that bringing about life-- any life whatsoever-- is a legitimate, plausible ambition in a world where plausible ambitions are hard to come by. This they can do.
To ask more from life on Fayette Street, to expect more from boy friends, or wives, or parents-- even to believe in more for one's child-- is to struggle against absurd odds, to ignore the living example of nearly everyone who came before you and who surrounds you now. Worse than that, to want more is to step beyond your own awareness-- and that of everyone else on the pavement as well-- about what's possible. To do anything more than dream is to invite a crushing emotional defeat.
On Fayette Street, to struggle against the weight of circumstance-- to try, in any sense-- is not regarded as an act of strength. It is, instead, a public demonstration of vulnerability. Caring, expecting, hoping-- these things bring only pain and contempt. Some carry that weight from one blast to the next, wrapping the pain around a syringe, transforming it from a thinking, emotional beast into something purely physical. For the fiends, the blast is the psychic safety net, the daily willingness to part with hope, ambition, and love. And for the younger ones, for those not yet on the needle or the pipe, expectation is readily sacrificed for the leavings of the here and now; girls, props, weed, new Jordans, crew clothes, a little pocket money. Only for a rare few along Fayette Street-- the churchgoers and the do-gooders, the home owners, the addicts who survived to reach recovery-- does the hard business of living in the future go on. Is it the wise ones or the fools who shut down, who learn to avoid the uncommon thought, to break faith with possibility itself and take pleasure where they can?
Save for that rare handful, the children of Fayette Street employ their sexuality in a stripped-down facsimile of life. The boys limit themselves to the ambition of making it through the day without getting locked up, or stuck up, or shot down. They hope to be around long enough to see a son born, or maybe a daughter. Maybe scrape together the roll for a bassinet or a high chair, or failing that, a bag of Pampers once a week. The girls break it down to the singular, forlorn hope that the father-to-be will go to the clinic, maybe even show up at the hospital for the birth and then keep coming around for a while afterward. Maybe he'll cover the cost of a crib or a stroller. And when the inevitable occurs, when he's moved on to some new girl, the best that can be expected is some kind of vague alliance, some small connection to the life he created.
If things work out, he'll show up once in a while to drag his son to the movies or down to Carroll Park for an afternoon. He'll drift at the fringes, putting a $5 or a $10 bill into the kitty, just as she'll feel the same cool allegiance now and then when he comes up short. They'll manage that much, and because they're from Fayette Street, they'll count themselves lucky, knowing on some level that they have no right to ask more.
The end result of these adolescent pairings may seem predictable enough, but there is still something remarkable in the degree to which the participants embrace their roles. Knowing on one level that the relationship itself has no future, boys and girls along Fayette Street nonetheless take every opportunity to play at something greater, pretending to ideals and responsibilities that will ultimately be discarded. Catch up with any fifteen-year-old girl who is four months into a pregnancy, and you're likely to hear about how the baby won't change anything, how she plans to be a good and loving mother, how she still plans to finish high school and maybe go to college. Catch up to the sixteen-year-old father and you're likely to hear that it's time for him to grow up, to get a straight job somewhere and be a provider for his child. On one level, the boys and girls know how hollow these intentions are. They are painfully aware of how little is possible for them and their baby, but something deeper-- some trace of an external standard, perhaps-- still requires them to pretend.
In the weakest couplings, there is no time to play house. But in any relationship longer than a month or two, there can be seen all the requisite stages of serial monogamy, delivered in the most rapid-fire sequence imaginable. Infatuation, intimacy, a period of shared commitment and then disillusion and withdrawal-- such is the stuff of months, years, even life times in places other than West Baltimore. On Fayette Street, though, all of the relationships are subject to unrelenting pressure and all are expected to fail momentarily. As a result, the boys and girls have learned to couple and procreate, betray each other and depart with remarkable haste.
They squeeze what validation, what drama they can from the coupling. But when the child is born, it proves to be an uneven exchange.
A corner boy hovers for a moment or two, then passes out Phillie blunts to his friends and declares his offspring right and fine. Then he goes back to the corner.
But the girl-- she'll be home in bed, the baby beside her, and she'll take that phone call from a girlfriend, the one who says he was down there not half an hour ago and went off with some new girl from around the way. She'll play it off, saying that he can do what he wants, that they haven't been together for weeks now. Then she'll get off the phone, go back to bed, and feel the sting.
Next time, she tells herself, she won't be so weak and stupid. Next time, it's going to cost more than some Harbor Park movie tickets and a trip to Mondawmin. More than some diapers and an off-brand stroller that lost a wheel after a week or two. Next time, she'll keep her feelings out of it and just play him the way he's playing her. It's a small comfort that does nothing to take her any distance from the crying baby, the room, the rowhouse, the neighborhood. She lies there on the worn mattress of her childhood bed, loving her child but half-wishing for a moment that it had never happened or, maybe, that it had happened with some other boy.
For the girls-- but never for the boys-- life actually changes when the child arrives. They learn some, they grow some. Most will go back to the corners, leaving the infant to be raised by grandmothers and great grandmothers. But some will come to understand that it's not about a newborn's unequivocal love, but about a mother offering the same night and day, day and night.
For those girls, this is the moment of reckoning: The boy is gone. The child is here. And finally, with the end of childhood and all the work and worry in the world staring her hard in the face, it might seem possible for a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old parent to see the bargain for what it is, straight, without fantasy or pretense. It might seem the perfect moment to wish for other outcomes, other choices.
But no, this is happening on Fayette Street.
The young mother lies in her bed, her baby asleep at her side, her hopes and fears proscribed by the world she knows, her future limited to questions about where the next bag of disposable diapers will be coming from.
This, for her, is as good as it gets.