When I lived in Detroit back in the 80’s, I used to walk home from work past a street corner where a group of African American and white teens hung out every day. To my chagrin, the first few times I walked past they called out “Where do you think you’re going?” as I headed toward my apartment in an integrated neighborhood.
I would just reply “I’m going home” and hurry by. Usually they laughed and joked among themselves about me being afraid of them and being on their turf.
There was some truth to that. The neighborhood rang out with gun shots intermittently. Steel hulls remained of cars that used to run on lots and burnt out houses were scattered around with homeless people, some of them addicts, living inside. My car battery was stolen so many times I first put a lock on the hood, then just sold the car and walked. This was not the world I grew up in as a middle class white college kid. And the truth was I moved there because I could afford the rent while paying tuition.
One of my four part time jobs at the time was working in a legal aid clinic affiliated with the school I was attending. One day when I went into the waiting room to get the next client, it turned out to be an elderly woman. With her was one of the kids from the corner, who was her grandson. I took them into a room and assisted her with some paperwork while he eyed me warily. Maybe he wanted to know if I recognized him. Maybe he thought I was mad at him for their teasing. I just did my job .
When we were done, his grandmother went down the hall to get her coat, but the teen stayed behind. “That was very cool of you not to say anything in front of my grandma about us giving you a hard time,” he said, nodding at me. “And if anyone gives you trouble any more on the streets, you let me know, okay?”
After that, I not only didn’t have any “trouble”, one of the teens always helped me carry home my books and other things. I learned safety tips from them all about living there. The word on the street was that I was “okay”.
One day I walked by crying. I’d just found out that my father had passed away. Six sets of eyes turned toward me wanting to know what was wrong. Sobbing I told them. All six teens followed me to my apartment and stood there awkwardly in front of the building.
“You gonna be alright?” one asked.
I nodded. “I have to go east for the funeral,” I said.
“Are you coming back?” he asked. “I mean, we send people for help to you.”
It was true. Sometimes there were clients there asking for me by name and my supervisor wanted to know whether I was out drumming up business. It was usually a friend of a friend of these kids who was in bad trouble and needed help.
“Don’t worry,” I told them. “I’m coming home.”
As I said the words, I realized I meant them. My home now was right there, not where I’d come from. I’ve learned that my home is sometimes where I’m wanted or needed, sometimes where I’m doing work that is useful to others.
Years later as an advocate I still think of home as a place defined through the people I meet as I discover where I’m going.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan