The first year after my parent’s separation was unstable. We bounced around from place to place as my mom searched for a second job and a new apartment; and we slept in cars, on floor pallets in spare bedrooms, on the couches of the men my mom would find to give her money in exchange for sex, and in the booths of the fast food restaurants where my mom worked.
For a few days at a time, a family would host us in their home or apartment so that we had playmates while our parents were away working one of their many part-time jobs. Being poor was hard; kids aren’t often supervised and must find ways to meet their own needs as parents work long hours at low-wage jobs.
We made floor pallets to sleep on in one of the bedrooms and during the days, I split my time between playing house with the other kids who were around and watching television. While we played house, we pretended that the littlest kids were our children, and those of us who were school age pretended to be the adults.
Sometimes my mom returned in a day or two, and sometimes she was gone for several days at a time and returned with things like pop, cereal, milk, lunch meat, bread, toilet paper and soap. When no actual adult was present, the older kids would take turns rotating house duty to stay inside with the littlest kids who couldn’t yet walk or take care of themselves while the rest of us played. During the times between grocery visits when there was no food, it was also the responsibility of the older kids to dumpster dive for food.
At age 7, and then 8, I was among the oldest of the kids, and while I was genuinely terrified of mice and creeping things, I enjoyed when it was my turn to sift through the trash bins—especially the bins at a nearby bakery where I was always able to find pastries and deli sandwiches. I brought back anything that was wrapped, not damaged, and that didn’t have maggots. After a day of foraging, I’d present my findings to my pretend family and we prepared a meal from the items that were gathered.
In addition to food, we also found household items in the neighborhood trash bins. Once I found an iron with a frayed cord. I brought the iron back to the apartment where we were temporarily living following my parents’ separation.
“Where did you get this from,” my mom asked that night as she was heading back to the room where our belongings were camped out. She had just gotten in from a late-night shift at one of the fast-food restaurants where she worked and was eager to get out of her work clothes.
“I found it in the trash. It’s really cool! What is it?” I said as I proudly hopped through the room wearing a long t-shirt and cotton shorts.
My uncombed hair was wild and gnarly, and while I did wash up each day, I only bathed when we stayed in places with a bathtub. In public bathrooms and at places without a bathtub, my mom, sister and I would take what mom called a “whore’s bath” — we would use a wet washcloth to wash our face, our armpits, and our genitals.
“Come on now—you know what an iron is. Don’t be stupid,” she said, throwing an annoyed glance across the room. She put the iron on the floor next to our mound of clothes.
“How do you use an iron?” I asked her.
“Come here, follow me.” My mother slipped on a t-shirt, took off her bra through her sleeve, flung the stretchy garment into the pile of clothes, and picked up the iron.
I followed her to the kitchen where she grabbed a knife from a drawer and cut off the remainder of the cord.
“What are you doing that for?” I asked.
“When it’s hot, it will smooth the wrinkles out of our clothes. Lay the clothes down flat and slowly move the hot iron over the clothes and the wrinkles will come out. Since the cord is broken we have to warm it up on the stove instead of plugging it in. I cut the cord so that the cord doesn’t burn up.” She placed the iron flat onto the stove that wasn’t turned on. “Now, don’t touch this damn stove. You hear me?” she said.
“Yes,” all the kids in the room replied in unison.
“If you’re not tall enough to use the stove, you can’t use the iron,” my mom said as her glazed eyes shimmered, reminding me of sleep.