started out bad. Star knew it was going to be bad when she saw Joe, one of
the Center's consumers or clients. Joe met Star at her car door in the
office parking lot. The questions began.
“Oh, hi, Star, good
morning, good morning. How
are you?” Joe didn’t wait for an answer. He continued, “--Uh, I was
a little nervous last night and had to call the Crisis Line. I
smelled smoke next door and called the manager and the police. The
police said it was nothing, but…. Uh, Star, do you know if
we’re still going as a group to the meeting? No one’s here but
me and Chico
When Joe took a quick breath, Star jumped in to answer. “As
far as I –“
Joe didn't let her
finish. "Oh, you don’t know? What time will we
leave? Will we go in the van? I guess we will. Do you
think we’ll all fit, Star? How many does the van hold?
Eight, or can ten go? I hope not too many. Will you go in
the van, too? If not, can I ride with you? I really
Star turned her head and sucked in air. “Joe, let’s wait to see who—“
“Wait? How long will we wait? It
, doesn’t it? I hope we’re not late. It’s already 8 .
to be exact.” Joe checked his watch.
“How long have you been here, Joe?” Star asked,
keeping her voice level.
“I got here at
,” Joe said. ”Chico got here at 7:23, didn’t you?
Chico? Star was asking what time you got here.”
He turned to the pacing 18-year-old in the dirty
blue T-shirt. Chico
said nothing. His dark eyes darted from point to point. They
landed on nothing and everything.
“Well, that’s what he put on the sign-in
sheet,” Joe went on. “Did Jill say we can still go if only two
show up? Maybe it’s not enough. What if no one else
comes? But I don’t want too many.”
Star walked toward her office door, trying not to
hurry. She wanted to keep her pace steady and firm. “Jill hasn’t told the staff anything yet, Joe. Let’s wait
and see, OK?”
Star stepped through her door. “Excuse me,
Joe. I just need a minute to get my papers in order.”
“Oh, sure, sure, go ahead. I’m sorry,
I’m sorry. I just--” He pulled a pair of glasses from
his pocket. “I remembered to bring them today,” he said,
holding them up for her to see as he moved into the room. Chico
“Good! You’ll be able to read the program,”
Star said. Wham! Her notebook made more noise than she
intended when it hit the desk. “Now, excuse me, Joe?”
Joe backed into Chico
as Star moved toward him to close the door.
“Watch it, man,” Chico
hissed in a tense low voice, his hand moving inside his pocket.
* * * * * * * * * *
Others were arriving now at the day center.
Star listened for problems as they arrived. She was 26, a
social worker, and pregnant. She had held two other jobs, but not
like this one. The Family Tree took people no one else wanted to
There was Danny. A hippie who skipped out on
the war in Vietnam. He had tried to hang himself three times. His hair was
matted and he smelled bad.
There was Boots. She had beat up her mother
with a boot when Mom didn’t buy the shoes she wanted. Boots had
just gotten out of jail.
There was Sonny, who lived for one thing:
cigarettes. He spent the day begging others for Camels and
checking the ashtrays for butts.
There was “Kandy King,” who wore his gray hair
loose to his waist. He liked 14-year-old girls and was sure
they liked him, too.
There was Doc, who had dropped out of med school
when the starship came to take him away.
There was Marcia, who’d been drinking with her
father from age 5, sleeping with him from age 6.
And there was Joe. For Joe, panic was the
juice of life.
Star wasn’t afraid of them anymore.
She knew a job for them would only mean cleaning up
after other people.
She knew “help” was medications with side
effects: stiff arms and legs, shaking hands, thick tongues, bad
She knew little sleep meant nightmares.
She knew most just wanted the safety of a place
But with all Star knew, Fridays were always the
same. She wanted to quit. By Monday she would be ready to
* * * * * * * * * *
Jill was loading everyone into the van for the trip
downtown. Star saw Joe riding shotgun. His seatbelt was on
and his mouth was moving.
Sonny wasn’t there.
Star had seen him head for the bathroom. He
was probably standing under the “NO SMOKING” sign, smoking.
Grinding the butts into the floor with his heel.
Star checked the rooms. “Sonny!”
She walked to the bathroom door.
“They’re serving a free lunch at the
hotel, Sonny, and the van’s leaving.”
The door opened.
During the lunch meeting Star kept her eye on those
at her table.
She stopped Sonny from putting out his cigarette on
She let Joe call the waiter to the table twice to
ask if the coffee was safe.
She told Chico
to take the knife and fork out of his pocket.
She kept Doc from huddling in the corner.
She saw Kandy
survey each table.
She let Boots empty 2 plates of food into a doggie
bag she pulled from her purse.
She left her lunch 3 times to take Marcia to the
On the third trip Star locked herself in a stall
and buried her face in her skirt.
It had been a long week and she was tired.
She wondered if being a parent was this hard.
* * * * *
* * * * *
Star went back to the table. The
speaker was telling a story.
When I was a small boy, my
father took me to the temple. He told the rabbi, “Please talk to
my son. He isn’t working hard enough in school.”
When my father left, the
rabbi held me close to his heart for a long time and said nothing.
When my father came to get
me, he asked the rabbi, “Have you talked with my son?”
The rabbi told him, “I
have had a long talk with your son. I’m sure he will try harder
“That,” the speaker said, “was when I saw
what I needed to do.”
The room was quiet.
Star looked at the faces of those at her table.
In their faces she knew she would find what she
needed to learn: how to hold them, one by one, to her heart.