I came of age in a time of no heroes. Oh, there were comic book heroes, super-heroes, but no real heroes. Nobody to show me how life was to be lived. I lived in a box under a bridge. It was the only home I could remember. I had no family, no mom, no dad. It was just me and my box. My only role models were others like me: kids with no heroes. We spent our days trying to stay alive and our nights hiding from the bigger kids like us.
The summer nights were the best and the worst at the same time. The soft, balmy air made keeping warm much easier, but it also drew out all the crazies. The bigger kids seemed to swell even bigger in the summer night, and there were more of them. We did our best to stay in the shadows, hiding under the piles of old clothes and cardboard that came from nowhere and everywhere on those soft nights. In the winter the piles protected us, but in the summer they smothered us.
They weren’t clean, either. Bugs that somehow came to life in the summer crawled all over us while we tried to be invisible, making us squirm, scratch, and sometimes sneeze. There were no bugs in the winter.
I was trying to get back to my box-room under the bridge unobserved one summer night when I first saw her, or rather, heard her. The stick she was dragging behind her scratched along the dirt, knocking a few old cans out of the way, causing a clatter I was sure could be heard by the big kids at the end of the alley.
“Shhh!” I motioned her to be quiet. I was not in the mood for a run-in with the big kids, who were hooting and hollering at something (or someone?) hunched over on the ground in front of them. They were facing away from the girl and me, and had not heard the clattering cans over their own noises.
As she got closer, I could see the girl was about my age, but not near as dirty or skinny as I was. She must be new. The new ones were always cleaner and fatter. Not that she was fat, not at all, but fatter than I was for sure. Her shoes fit, which meant they were probably her own shoes, not some cast-offs from the homeless shelter. They were dirty and one lace was missing, but they fit and I could see socks puddled around her ankles – they looked like they matched.
I ducked behind a trash bin, motioning her to follow me. The noise from the big kids at the end of the alley changed, dropped down a level. A couple of them turned and looked toward us, had they seen one or both of us? I heard footsteps, then someone shouted, “It’s prolly just a cat – come on back! We have a real live one here!”
Uh-oh. That meant they had surrounded one of the little kids and were tormenting him or her. “Shhh,” I said again as the new girl slid behind the bin with me. “You don’t want them to find us back here.”
“But, shouldn’t we go help whoever they have?” She crouched down, putting her lips close to my ear, tickling it with the words she breathed.
“Not unless you want to be tortured.” Sitting back on my heels, I looked at her in the near darkness. Some weak light crept around the black shape of the partially open back door of a restaurant, muted noise tumbling out with it. Up close, she was dirtier than I first thought, with streaks of something dark running down her cheeks, like dirty tears. Her lips were cracked and swollen, with tiny spots of red in places. Blood, or lipstick? I couldn’t tell. She tucked her head in and clutched the front of her shirt closed in her small hands, partially hiding a dirty white strap crossing her exposed shoulder.
“Oh, um, are you OK?” I reached out and brushed my fingers along the yellow edges of an old bruise fading along her jaw line. Instead of jerking her head back, she sighed and leaned into the cup of my hand for a minute, then straightened up, her eyes widening for a moment, searching my face.
“How long have you been out here?” She pulled her head away and leaned out so she could see down the alley to where the big kids were starting to move away.
I poked my head out beside hers, noticed the kids moving away, and started to scoot out into the alley. “I don’t know, forever, I guess. I don’t remember anything else but being here. What about you? Where did you come from?”
We were both standing now, the sound of loose dirt hitting the alley floor as we brushed off our pants, muffling our still whispered words.
“Look! Is that the kid they were beating up?” She pointed and started walking toward a heap of what looked like dirty clothes at the end of the alley. The big kids were nowhere in sight.
I hung back a bit, trying to see into the shadows. “Careful! What if they come back?”
By now she was kneeling down at the bundle of rags, using her stick to poke at them. “Hey, are you OK?” Her soft voice melted into the darkness. She leaned closer as a tiny moan, muffled by the rags, escaped. “It’s OK; we won’t let them hurt you anymore.”
I knew it was a bad idea, but I could not stop her. She tended that little kid all night in my box under the bridge. It was barely big enough for me, but that did not stop Diana. She told me her name as we dragged the kid away from the alley and into my box. He was more hungry and scared than he was hurt, but Diana figured he needed some rest in a safe place. Not that my box was very safe, but it was better than the open alley.
I spent the night pacing and looking out for the big kids. They mostly left the kids under the bridge alone, though. There were about 20 of us, all smaller kids, all living in boxes or under cardboard sheets. Once we made it here, to our flimsy homes, the big kids pretty much stayed away. They preferred a kid all alone to a bunch of kids all at once.
“I’m called Boy-Boy.” The kid told us when Diana asked what his name was. He said he was out looking for food yesterday with some other little kids from a couple blocks over when the big kids found him. He had stopped to check out a dumpster and the other kids kept going. By the time he noticed they were gone, it was too late.
“Diana?” I stuck my head into the box, only to see Boy-Boy and Diana sound asleep, curled next to each other. It reminded me of something; a quick memory that was gone as fast as it appeared, leaving me sad for some reason. I sat down outside the box again, tired from no sleep, but also hungry.
An hour later, as I prowled through the alleys behind the bars and restaurants near my bridge, I wondered about Diana and Boy-Boy. Would they still be there when I got back? Part of me hoped they would not be; I did not want to be responsible for anyone else. On the other hand, it was nice to have someone else to talk to, someone who was not trying to hurt me or take my food. Just then, a door creaked open and I ducked behind a dumpster, my legs shaking as I realized just how close I had come to being seen. I heard a sound, like rustling plastic, as if someone put a bag of trash on the ground, and then I smelled cigarette smoke.
I hunkered down, making myself as small as possible and waited for whoever it was to finish the cigarette and go back inside the restaurant. Once the door closed again, I eased the dumpster lid open, hoping for some fresh breakfast leftovers. There was nothing in the bin, but I did see the handles of a plastic trash bag peaking around the side of it. I smelled the warm cinnamon and icing before I opened the bag. Three whole, individually wrapped cinnamon rolls. These were fresh, not leftovers! Throwing a last cautious glance at the closed door, I grabbed the bag and ran off toward my bridge.
The three of us licked the sticky icing off our fingers, not wanting to lose a bit of the sugary treat. I leaned back against the cement pillar holding up the bridge, patted my stomach, and sighed. It was a big cinnamon roll and it filled me up. I was ready for a nap. Boy-Boy and Diana said they would go out in a little while and see if they could find more food for later in the day. They, too, were full from the cinnamon rolls and nobody felt like moving just then. I heard them quietly talking as I dozed off, the lack of sleep and the warm cinnamon roll catching up to me.
Footsteps woke me awhile later; I jumped up and slipped behind the pillar I had been resting against. Then I heard voices, words like “last night,” “dumpster,” and “sandwiches” coming through my sleep-fogged brain. I stepped out to watch Diana and Boy-Boy approaching, a plastic bag like the one I found the cinnamon rolls in earlier hanging from Boy-Boy’s hand.
“Hey, did you find some more cinnamon rolls?” My stomach growled at the thought.
“No, but we did find three, whole, sub sandwiches! They were right next to the dumpster we hid behind last night.”
“Wow. Do you think someone is putting them out just for us?” I reached into the bag and took out a package about eight inches long, wrapped in white paper. I could smell lunchmeat and mustard as I peeled the paper off the fresh bun. When I took the first bite, something dribbled down my chin. Whoever made the sandwich must have used some kind of oil for the dressing. My mind flashed on something, but the image was too fleeting for me to catch. I shrugged and took another bite.
“I don’t know, but it does seem strange that there were three cinnamon rolls this morning and now three sandwiches this afternoon, doesn’t it?” Diana nibbled at the lettuce, meat, and cheese that hung over the sides of the bun. Boy-Boy had already finished his sandwich and was licking the oil and mustard off his lips.
“I think we should go knock on that door and see who answers!” Diana gathered up the sandwich wrappers, stuffed them into the plastic bag, and started walking back toward the alley.
“No! It could be a trap! What if it is Social Services? And anyhow, it’s going to be dark soon, the big kids will be out looking for trouble.” I took the bag from her and tossed it on the ground behind my box with all the other trash I had thrown there.
We spent the evening staying close to the bridge, playing a game similar to kick-ball, but with no ball, just bags of trash. A group of big kids walked by across the street, calling out to us, but not coming close enough to catch us. There were several other little kids under the bridge, too. Safety in numbers.
Early the next morning, Diana left the shelter of the box and slipped down the alley toward the dumpster. She waited until she heard the door open, and then stepped out from the shadows. A man was just putting a trash bag down next to the bin; Diana could smell the cinnamon.
“Why are you doing this?”
The man started at her voice, “Oh! I didn’t see you there. I just wanted you and your friends to have some good, hot food, that’s all.” He looked nervous, checking the door behind him as he spoke. He picked up the bag and held it out toward Diana. “Here, take it before some other kids come along and find it.”
Boy-Boy poked me awake, asking where Diana was. I was sleeping outside my box, under a sheet of cardboard. There was not enough room inside for all three of us. “I don’t know, isn’t she inside?” I gestured toward the box.
“Duh, no. Would I be asking you if she was?” Boy-Boy huffed his annoyance. “I’m hungry. Are you going to get some food or do you want me to go this time?”
I figured Boy-Boy was only about seven or eight years old, but kids get wise fast when living on the streets. I didn’t know for sure how old I was, but I think I was around 11. Almost a big kid. I didn’t want to think about being a big kid and picking on someone like Boy-Boy. “I’ll go. You stick around here and see if you can find us another box – or at least a bigger one. With three of us now in our family, we will need more room.”
His eyes got wide and shiny. “Are you saying we are family? You want to be my family?”
“Yeah, Boy-Boy. I do want to be your family. We need to stick together out here.” I ruffled his hair, feeling a lot older than I should have. “Now go find us another home.”
“Hey, guys!” Diana called out from across the street, “I have breakfast!” She waited for a car to pass, and then darted over to us. “Look, cinnamon rolls again! And, there are three cartons of milk, too!”
After breakfast, we scouted around and found another box, a bit smaller than my original one, but cleaner. It would do nicely for one person. We took it back to the first box and lashed the two of them together with twine we found wrapped around some boards behind the bridge pillars. We felt proud of our new, fancy, two-room home. Boy-Boy and I would sleep in the bigger box and Diana took the newer, smaller one.
We talked about the man who was leaving us food, and wondered what he wanted. None of us had any real trust for adults, and we figured that someday he would demand something from us. However, we were also tired of digging in dumpsters and then living in fear that someone would take our food from us, so decided that until the man demanded something in return, we would take his food.
That evening I went to see if he was going to leave us some more of those great subs. Sure enough, there was a bag sitting by the side of the dumpster.
“Hey kid! Whatcha got there?” I was almost to the end of the alley when I heard a big kid call out to me. There were six of them, all leaning against the fence surrounding the property on the right side of the alley, just across from me. I had been so involved in the delicious smells coming from the bag that I forgot to watch out for them.
I opened the bag, made a face, and then tossed it into a pile of trash, hoping the big kids would think it was nothing and let me go. “Nothing, just some garbage I picked up, I thought it had some food in it, but it doesn’t.” I stepped into the street, not looking at the big kids, pretending as if I did not have a care in the world.
“Yeah, you sure?” One of the kids separated himself from his friends and started toward me. Just then, Diana stepped away from the group of little kids watching us from across the street.
“Hey, Marty!” she called out. “Boy-Boy found another box! We can each have our own room! Hurry up, come and see it!”
The big kid stopped and looked over at her; he turned as though he was going to cross the street, then stopped again. “Hey girlie! I haven’t seen you around here before. Why don’t you come over here and hang out with us? We are a lot more fun than the little kid losers over there.”
I ran as fast as I could across the street while the big kid was taunting Diana, who remained right where she was, just outside the little kids’ camp. Boy-Boy stood behind her. The three of us moved back toward the center of the camp, where about 15 more little kids were standing around, nervously watching the big kids across the street.
“Ah, you’re all a bunch of losers!” The big kid shouted as he turned back toward the pile of trash where I had thrown the bag of sandwiches. His friends moved out away from the fence, joining him. I cringed, knowing they were about to find our dinner.
“Time to move along, kids.” A voice came from deeper in the alley. A man dressed in white chef’s pants and a white t-shirt stepped out from behind the dumpster. He had a frying pan in his hand and he casually slapped his other hand with it as he walked toward the group of bullies. The big kids scattered, running down the street at the end of the alley, away from the bridge.
The man nodded at us, turned, and walked back toward the dumpster and the open doorway beyond it.
That night, as Diana, Boy-Boy, and I ate our sandwiches, we talked about the man, the big kids, and most of all, our new family. As it turned out, there were heroes all around us.