Forty dollars a week, my mother’s salary before taxes in 1954, could barely feed my brother and me. For sixty-seven cents, however, she could buy a box of fertilizer that would nourish her plants all summer. By mid-June, when the rungs of the Brooklyn fire escapes sizzled and the police had given up on keeping the hydrants closed, our fire escape exploded with color: purple African violets, scarlet geraniums, yellow and magenta pansies, waxy white begonias. My mother’s plants, as perfect as silk imitations, were a testament to her hunger for beauty.
Having failed to pay the rent for three months, my mother, my little brother, and I came home to find an eviction notice on our trailer. The front door was barred. Even when my mother threw her body against the door, it wouldn’t budge. It was nine o’clock at night. She had left her purse in the house. We had nowhere to go. My brother started to cry.
Not long ago I ran across my birth certificate tucked away at the bottom of an old wooden trunk filled with important papers. I looked again at the signatures of my father and mother next to each other, along with my inky footprints. I was heartened to see all our names together.
Last November I published the following poem in The Sun:
There is a remnant of cool left to him. It’s in the way he combs his gray hair back with a little wave at the top. It’s in his gold neck-chains and the way he lights his Camel straights: one-handed, with an ornate Zippo lighter. He has a distinctive, slightly sinister accent, a mix of South Boston and Brooklyn, acquired in the years he spent in the army.
Sheila won custody. I get alternate weekends and a month in the summer, plus special events if I give notice in advance. It’s working out, mostly. Mark is eight and such a crackerjack, playing soccer and reading Sherlock Holmes. He’s ahead of the pack in reading for his age, and maybe he’s not the star in soccer, but two weeks ago his team squeaked into the playoffs. Sheila was there, even though it was my Saturday, because she’s interested in Mark’s coach. She had called me before the game and asked me to keep my distance. I’d suggested I come disguised as a groundskeeper.
In discussions of justice in America, talk of punishment and retribution dominates. There is little interest in offering criminals, even juveniles, a second chance. But Joseph Rodriguez’s story makes a strong argument for the possibility of redemption.