GirlBombFollowing the hardcover success of her book GIRLBOMB: A Halfway Homeless Memoir (Random House), Gotham Memoir teacher Janice Erlbaum celebrates the release this month of the paperback version. At the age of fifteen, Janice left home to avoid living with an abusive stepfather, which led to a life in shelters for the homeless, along with an odyssey of casual sex, drugs, and alcohol. The good news is that she survived and thrived, and wrote a fascinating account of these years, described by Publisher’s Weekly in this way: “Her memoir reads like a neorealist novel. Sharp yet poignant, raw and vivid, it illumines the dirty underside of American girlhood and brings it to harrowing life.”

Take a peek. In this passage, young Janice has just left home and is making her way towards shelter. (Download a Poets & Writers podcast of Janice reading from Girlbomb here.)

Where do you think you’re going?

Forty-Seventh Street and Tenth Avenue – that’s what the lady on the phone told me. “The building has a big sign with a cross on it,” she said kindly. “We’ll be looking out for you.”

I hung up the pay phone and hoisted my bookbag. I was fifteen years old, it was ten thirty on a windy November night, and I was somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen. I’d been marching uptown since Washington Square Park, not knowing where I was going, my hands swollen and tingly from swinging furiously at my sides, my bookbag denting my hip with each step.

“Yo, where you goin’, miss? I could walk with you?”

No, papí. I was walking alone tonight. I was going to a shelter, which was on Forty-Seventh and Tenth, and I wasn’t stopping for anybody – not the hustlers hawking nickel bags, not the Italian homeboys in their tricked-out I-Roc catcalling me. Not even a break in stride for the two boys passing me, shoving each other and laughing, then yelling, “Hey miss, you dropped something!”

“Hey, miss!”

You miss me yet, Mom? The way you missed Dave so much you just had to take him back?
It’s only been a few hours, maybe you think I’m walking around the neighborhood, burning
off some steam, I’ll be coming back any minute. Or maybe I went to one of my friends’
houses – what were those girls’ names again?

“Pssssst. Over here, girl.”

I was on a bad block, a gauntlet of drunks, hookers, and bums, leading nowhere. I’d been walking quickly, but now I started really hoofing it, still trying not to out and out run, red-eyed men hissing at me from every shadow. I was almost at the address the lady gave me, but I didn’t see the building with the cross. Don’t panic, I thought, panicking, faint tears blurring my sight. Maybe it’s across the street.

Across the street was a rotting industrial plant. Cattycorner was a diner and a church. But right here was a building covered in scaffolding, and a man approaching me from a driveway, asking, “Are you looking for some place?”

“No,” I said quickly, moving away. “I’m fine.”

“You sure? Because this is a shelter here.”

I stopped, took in the man’s blue windbreaker and badge. His face was impassive, but his hand was outstretched.

“You need to come on in here tonight?”

Copyright 2006© Janice Erlbaum. Reprinted by permission of Random House Publishing Group. To learn more about Janice and her book, visit: