Gotham Memoir teacher Janice Erlbaum has just released her second memoir, Have You Found Her. Her first memoir, the well-received Girlbomb, tells Janice’s story of leaving a bad home life to live “halfway homeless,” in a shelter for teenage girls…and on the edge. The second memoir relates Janice’s experiences, 20 years later, of serving as a volunteer at the very same shelter in which she had herself lived.
In this passage, Janice (known as “Bead Lady” for the craft workshop she runs) has an interesting encounter with the kind of girl she used to be.
I met her right around Thanksgiving, sitting alone in the cafeteria—this tall, rangy white girl with a shaggy mop of brown hair, a grunge-butch affect, and a cast on her hand, cheerfully shoveling in the meatloaf and mashed potatoes on her plate. I hadn't seen her the week before; she was probably new. Probably in need of someone to eat dinner with. “Can I join you?” I asked, motioning towards the empty seat across from her.
She continued chewing, eyebrows slightly raised, and signaled a welcome with her busted hand. I sat.
“How's that doing,” I asked, pointing to the cast.
She waved her hand, so-so, and swallowed. “It hurts a lot. I snapped a ligament in my wrist. I have to have surgery before I can go to rehab.”
“Ouch,” I said, wincing in sympathy. “How’d it happen?”
“Punched a wall.” She grinned a little. “I thought it was just sheetrock, but it turned out to be concrete.”
She had a hint of a West Coast accent, or something, I couldn't exactly place it, and there
was a frankness in her voice, something knowing and wry. The way she said “rehab”
—so matter-of-fact, with no dread, no shame—she might as well have said, “I have to
have surgery before I can go to the bank.” Rehab was just a place she had to go. And she
met my eyes easily, her own eyes large and clear. Most of the girls avoided eye contact,
that's why the beads were such a handy trick; they didn't have to be looking at anybody
while they talked, they could look at their hands. This girl looked at me like she was studying me, memorizing me, and unafraid to have me to do the same.
“You gotta be careful about punching unfamiliar walls,” I cautioned, smiling. “Apparently, some of them punch back.”
She raised the wrist as proof that I was right. “When I was a kid, my dad used to punch out all the windows. Then he’d put boards over them, and then he’d punch out the boards.”
“Sounds like a great dad.”
She smiled with one side of her mouth, her eyes still on mine, and I felt that instant rapport, that excitement—new favorite alert. In truth, I never chose any of my favorites; my favorites were the ones who chose me, the ones who acted like they’d just been waiting for me to sit down next to them so they could spill their stories: “I don't tell anybody this, but I trust you, Miss.” And maybe they'd told someone before and maybe they hadn't, but right now they were choosing me, because I made them feel safe; they were going to imprint on me for the next three hours, or five minutes, whatever it was, while I sat there feeling honored and astonished and vitally important for as long as it lasted.
To learn more about Janice and her book, go here: www.girlbomb.com