Sunday, May 13, 2007

For Jeremy, and for Ruth

About 15 years ago, I lived on the northern border of Oakland, in the Rockridge district. There was a place there called the Buttercup Cafe, which had food that was both pretty good and reasonably priced. I had very little money then, so I usually stopped in for a cup of soup (all I could usually afford) after work.

I was something of a regular there, and got to know the waitresses pretty well. There was one waitress named Ruth, and on rainy winter evenings when it was slow we'd talk for hours about where we'd grown up and what we thought of the world.

She'd grown up hard and close to the bone, in a hard-scrabble little iron range town somewhere in Minnesota. Her dad was a Jim Beam aficionado, and I got the sense that there was some darkness there. She never talked about it, and I respected her too much to pry, but it was there in her eyes sometimes when she talked about back home.

She was talking one night about Northern California, and some of the differences from back home that she'd noticed since she moved.

"One thing," she said, "is how parents treat their kids out here - they just let them run wild! No discipline at all. Back home, if you did wrong you got a beating - none of this 'time out' stuff. You've gotta keep kids in line." I got the feeling she'd read a lot of James Dobson's books, where he talks about, among other things, parents' obligation to beat the (literal) hell out of their children.

I stared out the window for a moment at the rain dripping off the awning, and then turned back to her and told her about this kid I remembered from my last year going to the Day Camp I went to for disadvantaged kids, named Jeremy.

Jeremy was about 7 years old, and he would always ride at the very back of the bus on the way to camp, and sit in the middle of the long bench seat so he could see everything going on in the bus during the daily ride up to Wildcat Canyon - like he was afraid of missing something. He had striking eyes - light brown, and filled with wonder. The world appeared to be endlessly fascinating to him, and he radiated a simple joy that was touching to see. I would look back at this kid whenever I got on the bus - I felt a little protective of him.

One day toward the end of the summer, I looked back and was immediately struck by a change in him. He looked weary, and the light in his eyes had gone out - like something important inside had broken.

I gave one of the counselors, a pretty blond teenager, a look and motioned with my head toward the back of the bus. We walked back together and sat accross the aisle from each other, one row in front of Jeremy.

"What's wrong, Jer'?"

He paused a moment, and then pulled up the hem of the right leg of his short pants. On the front of his thigh was an angry, purple bruise.

"What happened, Jeremy? Who did that to you?"

He looked up at us, his eyes filled with bewilderment and hurt, and said, "My daddy."
I looked at Ruth when I finished the story, and saw an ocean of sadness behind her eyes, a sadness with which I have some personal experience.

"That's...really sad," she finally said.

"Yeah, it is."

I moved to another town a short while later, but I hope Ruth is married to a nice, sober guy, and giving her kids time-outs when they mis-behave.

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