Everyone knew that Erica's capable nature would require that she preserve herself now that she was carrying a baby.
Rosemary's and Ophie's miracles transpired in fits and starts, but partly, one could say, they were both saved by the power of love.
Rosemary hit bottom right around the time she got her income-tax refund, which amounted to about $2,000. “I went and I bought all my little brothers shoes,” she said. “Then I gave Pita, my sister, $200, and I gave my mom a bunch of money to pay her bills. The rest was just for me. I didn't buy no shoes. I didn't buy no pretty clothes. I just went and bought all the drugs I can. All the beer and hard stuff. Plus, I went and bought me a new lighter. And then I went back to the apartment and just got high. I was still going to work, but I was getting high every night.”
By this time, Ophie and Rosemary had become friends again. Curly, Ophie's boyfriend, had gotten himself locked up on a parole violation, and Ophie was camping out in an apartment right across from where Rosemary was living with her boyfriend, Snoopy.
“One day, I saw Ophie going out, and she had Puppet's picture in her back pocket,” said Rosemary. “When I saw the picture, I knew she was thinking about killing herself that night. So I went off on her. I said, 'Don't do this to yourself! Don't do this to me! Listen, if Puppet wanted us there with him, he would send for us. And he hasn't.' I put her in her pajamas, got her in bed, got her some water. And then I just stayed with her all night. When she was finally asleep, I kept getting high, getting high, getting high. Just taking as much stuff as I could, almost doing to myself what I told her she couldn't do.”
During the night, Ophie roused herself enough to put a CD on the boom box. “This is dedicated to you from me,” she told Rosemary. The song was “Don't Speak” by the group No Doubt.
You and meI can see us dying . . . are we?
When singer Gwen Stefani's voice floated out of the speakers, Rosemary began to cry. “She was taking all those drugs,” Ophie said later, “and I felt like I was losing her. So I played that song to say to her that I wanted my friend back. And that I wanted myself back.”
The next morning, Rosemary had a breakdown. She went to work, but soon realized it was a mistake. “I hadn't slept for two days,” she said. “I was shaking and crying, and I thought everyone was looking at me.” So she left and drove around aimlessly. Finally, late in the afternoon, she went to a phone booth and called Father Greg. “I need help,” she sobbed. “I told him, 'When all that was going on with my father, I learned to be a pro at hiding things. All my life, I've held all the feelings inside. I can't do it no more. Please find me some kind of rehab. I can't do this no more.'”
– 12 –
Erica went into labor on October 31, 1996, Halloween night. When she first arrived at White Memorial Hospital, the intern sent her home, which turned out to be the wrong directive. She came back again at 5 in the morning, and the doctor on duty looked concerned as he ordered a nurse to hook her up to a fetal heart monitor. During her pregnancy, Erica had been taking a training course to be a medical assistant, and she knew how to use the monitor. “I could hear the low heartbeat,” she said. “So I looked at the nurse and said, 'Something's wrong.'”
The nurse called for the doctor, who admitted the intern had made a mistake in sending her home. “The baby's heartbeat's a little low,” he said.
“What do you mean, 'a little low'?” she asked, panicked and furious.
She couldn't believe what was happening. “When Cesar passed away, I didn't care about anything. I just wanted to be with him,” Erica said later. “But then when I found out I was pregnant, I took perfect care of myself from then on, because this baby was a part of both of us.”
Erica held the doctor's gaze. “After all I've been through,” she told him, “I'm not about to lose my son now.”
The doctor shocked the baby's heartbeat back to normal. “They just put the thing inside of me and they just – WHAP! – shocked him.” She delivered a healthy boy at 3 p.m. on November 2. There was no mistaking that he was Puppet's child, with his shovel-shaped head and large, elfin ears. Erica named him Cesar Angel. “Cesar's angel,” she said, still dreamy from the labor of bringing the new life into being.
– 13 –
Before Puppet's death, Erica had been managing a phone room, literally a big room full of salespeople making phone solicitations. After the baby was born, she decided that, although the sales job paid well, she had no heart for it. She wanted to do community work instead. “A lot of terrible things have happened to me here in the projects,” she said. “But this community, and the people I've met here, have also saved me. And I want to give back.”
As luck would have it, a new grassroots organization called IMPACTO – Imaginando Manana: Pico Aliso Community Team Outreach – had recently opened its doors just down the street from Father Boyle's office. It was funded in part by a grant from the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, with a mandate to reduce youth and family violence in the projects by “offering positive alternatives.”
Erica applied for a job, was hired immediately and soon promoted to office manager and program assistant. Her duties included organizing events for community kids and soliciting corporate donations. She also was given the task of occasionally visiting gang members from the projects who were serving time in various probation camps.
This last duty presented a problem. When she went to the camps, Erica found that many of the boys she was scheduled to visit belonged to gangs that were enemies of the Clarence Street Locos – a gang to which, as Puppet's “widow,” Erica was linked by association. One of the enemy gangs was, conceivably at least, tangentially responsible for Puppet's death. “The guys I saw, they all knew who I was,” she said after a few of her visits. “And they all knew what had happened to Cesar.”
Erica did her best to speak with equal compassion to all the boys – enemy or no. “I'm here because I don't want this to happen to anyone else,” she would tell them. “I've suffered. My son has suffered. And I'll do whatever it takes to keep the same thing from happening to you and the people who love you.” It turned out that she had a talent for the work. After a while, even the “enemy” boys waited with anticipation for her arrival, greeting her with brotherly hugs, desperate for affection. “I really know this is what I'm meant to do, this work in the projects, to make things better here,” she said. “I want to go back to school soon. I might study psychology or maybe nursing. But whatever it is, I'll bring it back to Pico-Aliso.”
Whether or not Erica believed all her compassionate words in the beginning, in the end they became true. “I'll never forget what the people who killed Cesar did to him,” she said recently. “But I've forgiven them. And doing this work makes me feel he didn't die for nothing.”
– 14 –
When Rosemary got out of rehab on April 27, 1997, she was ignited by the energy of the newly converted. The daily therapy groups had been a revelation to her, opening doors on monsters she'd kept inside all her life, exposing them to sunlight and rendering them less fearsome. “I'm being given a second chance,” she said. “For the first time in my life I'm starting with a clean slate.”
In short order, she found a job and an affordable rental house for herself, her mother and three brothers in a safe neighborhood far away from the projects. “It's like our dream house!” she said as she walked the length of the place, staring into the big, clean rooms. She also signed up to have her tattoos removed through a pro bono program at White Memorial Hospital, administered through Father Boyle's office. The last tattoo to go was a dark scrawl on her right arm that read, “Shirley R.I.P.” “I got it after Bambi died, rest-in-peace,” she said. “She'll always be in my heart. But I want a whole new me now.”
In June 1997, producers from KNBC's The Leeza Show were looking for young women who had turned their lives around. Staff at the tattoo-removal clinic recommended Rosemary.
“I really felt like I had something to talk about,” Rosemary said after the show aired in October. “When they asked me what I want to be doing in 10 years, I said I want to do counseling for young girls who have been sexually abused. Some girls don't even survive, I told them. They kill themselves because they don't get help. There were so many times when that's exactly what I wanted to do. But I didn't. And I thank God every day for my life.”
As the months passed, the glow of rehab predictably dimmed. “It saved me,” Rosemary said, “but you come back out into the real world, all your problems are still the same. You still have to pay your bills, find a job, put up with everybody's B.S., stay sober. And all that's hard.”
Yet through it, she has maintained a forward direction. “Just the other day, I'm sitting there in my new house,” she said. “I'm on the sofa and looking across at my mother, who is waa-a-a-y at the other end of the living room – 'cause this new house is big – and I have this moment of clarity. And I say, 'I made it. I'm not done, but I did it. I did it.'”
– 15 –
Ophelia's redemption took the longest. By the summer of 1996, she'd pulled herself out of the worst of her suicidal spiral. Yet the shadow was always there waiting.
Over the next year, she made earnest attempts to patch together a family with the fathers of her kids. First she tried it with Curly, who had lately gotten out of jail. When that fell apart, she moved in with Todd, a tall and handsome surfer-blond who was the father of her youngest son. Yet within months of promising devotion and good behavior, each young man managed to get himself locked up: Curly on another parole violation, Todd on a drug-related charge.
“Life is shit,” Ophie said the day Todd was arrested. To make matters still worse, she was pregnant again. There was talk of an abortion, but Ophie clung to the pregnancy. “Nobody wants this baby but me,” she said angrily as she grew big, soft and round. Since she had herself been an unwanted baby, the symbology seemed both blatant and ill-fated: With this child she was attempting to rebirth herself into more compassionate circumstances.
Months before, Ophie had a dream about Puppet. “I knew it was him because of his hands,” she said. “There was that little CSL tattooed on his fingers. He said it was okay, that I shouldn't blame myself anymore. That he's not in any pain. That I should stop being afraid. He also told me I should tell Erica that he loves her. And that he's happy for the baby.” The dream seemed to settle something fundamental for Ophie. “I felt released,” she said. “I felt forgiven.”
At 8:24 p.m. on January 1, 1998, her baby boy was born, just as the year turned. Although Curly was the father of record, when Ophie called from the hospital, she announced she had decided to give the child her own last name. “All my other boys have their dad's name,” she said. “Not this one. This is my baby, nobody else's.”
Sometimes the most unlikely events become talismans. Ophie had three kids to raise alone already, and the burden of yet another should have put her under. Curiously, it did not. Instead, this baby seemed to provide her with a strength of purpose she'd previously been unable to summon.
Four days after she came home from the hospital, Ophie got out of bed and went looking for a job. She found work right away as a temporary receptionist at Sharper Industries in Huntington Beach. In early February, her boss offered her a permanent position. “Eleven dollars an hour plus benefits,” she said breathlessly. “401(k)'s and everything. My mom is 46 and still can't get a real job. But my kids are not going to grow up with their mother on welfare. They're going to be proud of their mother.”
Job security led to other elements of stability for Ophie. In March, she moved herself and the kids to a three-bedroom unit in a prettily landscaped mobile-home park. Two weeks later, she purchased a car, a 1979 Cadillac, reddish brown in color. “It matches my hair!” she said. “And it's all insured and registered! I even got myself a Triple-A card.” Ophie paused. “For so many years, I kept hoping some guy would save me, and that made me dependent. Not anymore. From now on, Ophie depends only on Ophie.”
– 16 –
It would be unrealistic to pretend that any of these three women is completely out of danger. But neither am I. Neither are you. We live in a complicated city, in a complicated time. Pain is everywhere, and there are no easy solutions. Life can flip from joy to catastrophe in the space of a heartbeat.
When my book on the projects' gangs and Father Boyle was finished, some of my friends in my own neighborhood asked me why I continued to go down to Pico-Aliso. “It's so depressing,” they said.
“I go there for the hope,” I told them. What I meant was, I go there because young women like Ophie, Rosemary and Erica demonstrate to me over and over that there's so much more hope in the world than the nightly news and our own pessimism would have us believe. My own life and my son's life become more hopeful by extension.
There's a catch, however. Hope, unlike despair, doesn't grow in isolation – unless it's foolish hope. For hope to come to fruition, it requires active and ferocious participation, not only in your own life, but in the lives of those around you.
– 17 –
It's a sunny day in June, and I'm feeding the last of this story into my laptop computer when the phone rings. It's Ophie. “Your timing's perfect,” I tell her. “I was just typing your name.”
I've already talked to Erica and Rosemary earlier in the week. Erica is planning a trip to Washington, D.C., with some of her IMPACTO colleagues. “We're going to get to see Congress,” she said, “and go to a swimming party at Ethel Kennedy's house. Can you believe it?” Rosemary is working at Homeboy Silkscreen, and says she has been promised a position with the new HUD-sponsored Pico-Aliso revitalization project.
Now Ophie sounds nervous on the phone, and I wonder if something is wrong. “I have a favor to ask,” she says. “I want you to be the godmother for my new baby, for Michael. I’m going to baptize him in July. Will you do it?”
I take a breath before answering. I’m already godmother to one baby born in the projects. When I made that commitment five years ago, it scared the wits out of me, just as this one scares the wits out of me now. I understand that in Pico-Aliso terms, “godmother” means being bound to the child and the mother forever. I’m a single mom raising a boy of my own, I mutter to myself silently. Do I really need one more responsibility?
“I’d be honored to do it,” I say finally. “I feel incredibly lucky that you asked me.”
It is only after I say the words that I realize I truly mean them.
The baptism of Michael Jeremiah Duarte took place at 3 p.m. on July 18, 1998, at Dolores Mission Church.