I’m used to seeing adults at the fridge, grabbing food. But not kids. Not alone.
Thanks for reading The Dysfunction of Food! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
There is a teenage boy helping himself to a school-sized carton of chocolate milk. He opens it, downs and crushes it beforeI can even say hi.
“Why are you out here looking for food?” I ask.
He pitches the carton into a trash bag.
“My mom threw me out,” he says.
He looks me right in the eye.
“She doesn’t want anything to do with me.”
I know from having teens, and from being around my kids’ friends, that not everything they say is literal. His mom might have thrown him out. But-maybe not. Maybe she got mad. Furious even. Maybe she regrets it and is worried about him. Or maybe she is a shit mom. Or a mom who is over-worked, under-paid, stressed the fuck out. Maybe she doesn’t have the skills to work through his issues. There are so many possibilities.
But he’s a kid. And he is in some kind of crisis. And we know, the research tells us, that a crisis can set off an avalanche of vulnerabilities for anyone. Especially kids.
I offer him dinner.
It’s late-lockdown. 2021.
I have been operating a community pantry in our front yard that is feeding our community in downtown Vegas. I’m stocking the fridge. A local bar here, Rebar, has loaned us a beer fridge and now it has cheese, meats, salad greens, milk, bread, cream, and all sorts of things for people to choose from. I turned our Little Free Library into a little free pantry that offers spices, condiments and shelf-stable foods, like canned meats and vegetables. I get fresh vegetables and fruits from supermarkets that are on the verge of expiration. Mostly they are gorgeous and fresh. I open a little green market on my doorstep.
Once a month, our cookbook group - we call ourselves Please Send Noodles - makes 200+ dinners for people who pull up to the curb. We get cash donations from folks holding their own, and we offer pantry give-aways so people have the basics to make their food well-cooked, tasty and varied.
You’ll hear me talk about this time with the pantry a bit because it was a time during which our home was very open to people. For about a year. People were coming up to our door, all hours of the day and night, and asking for food. I met a lot of folks. They talked a lot. I listened.
This experience shifted a lot of the ways I think about food, eating, shopping and cooking.
During the pandemic, particularly before checks started coming in, people were desperate and also desperately honest. Some of their stories are in my forthcoming book (The Meth Lunches: Food + Longing in an American City, St. Martin’s Press, October 10, 2023), but many remain only in my notes.
Which brings me to Roberto. His is a story I tried many times to include in the book. But it never quite fit. My editor kept booting it out. The story held more questions than answers. It couldn’t be its own chapter and yet it should’ve been. We just couldn’t nail it down. But meeting him changed me. It made me think about how kids get lost and become lost adults.
I think about lost people a lot now. The shadows and the holes they fall into and disappear. I think about this even with my own kids. Last week, I wrote about this a bit when I wrote, Bipolar, about my daughter Lucy.
People get lost all the time in the United States of America.
He doesn’t hesitate to come into the house.
He is barely in the door before he starts talking. It’s like someone has opened a locked closet, and now all the junk inside is tumbling out.
“My stepfather had enough. I was actually not getting into trouble this time.” he tells my husband, David and me.
We give him clothes. Thank God baggy sweats are in. Lucy hands me some, and clean socks, one of David’s t-shirts and underwear. Not exactly the right size, but close enough. It will do. He takes a shower. This is the first time we have allowed a person who comes to the pantry to shower in our house. We have boundaries and rules so that it all works for everyone.
But he is a child.
The same age as some of my children and I can’t quite separate myself from this fact
He uses David’s phone to message his girlfriend on instagram. Hazel lives around the corner.
We wash his clothes. He eats two full plates of dinner. Grace Young’s “Beef and Broccoli” with heaps of rice. He is starving.
He sits in our living room. Plate on his knees. He is very forthcoming.
The gun thing just slides into the conversation like no big deal.
Everyone has guns in Nevada. Even many progressives. It’s that frontier, outlaw, mafioso, vaquero, libertarian pull that is a current running through everything. Nevada is a purple state. Blue in Clark County, the southern tip of the state, which includes Las Vegas. The rest is outstretched miles of highway and dirt roads, rock and joshua trees, dotted with towns, ghost towns, ranches, brothels, gas stations and souvenir shops. Rural Nevada is deeply red.
But David and I are still city folk in the desert. We don’t keep guns in the house.
“I was arrested and had a home-monitor on,” he tells us.
He looks rugged. Tired. He has muscled arms. He has a lot of tattoos. But they are stick and poke, mostly. The ones kids do on each other.
“I couldn't take it anymore, so I took one of our guns and shot it off my ankle.”
David and I look at each other. We have gotten used to putting on this blank stare that imparts no meaning or judgment, when teens confide in you about something they are doing or feeling, and it’s actually freaking you the hell out inside, but you don’t want them to know.
That’s the look. Blank. Neither angry, disappointed or happy. Neutral AF.
“The police are looking for me.”
He talks about himself as if he is a wanted man. The more we talk about his options., the more we see how boxed in he is. I ask him his name.
“Only your first name,” David interjects. “It’s better we don’t know your last name.”
Roberto. This child’s name is Roberto.
I call a nonprofit that takes in unhoused kids. I do this with him, not to him. They tell him they can meet him at a nearby gas station. If he has legal issues, they will try to work with the police.
“No. NO. I can’t go back to juvie.”
He starts to shake, visible tremors.
I’m struck by how scared he is. Is this child a delinquent? - a boy who cries at the thought of jail? Is this a hardened criminal?
Roberto won’t meet anyone at the gas station. He sits and trembles. I promise him I won’t call anyone else.
We talk to him in soothing tones.
It feels to me like the things he has done are fixable, unless he is hiding something else, which is possible. He is so young. His life cannot be defined by this.
But it is.
If he doesn’t come clean with the police and settle this now, he will always have warrants. Eventually, he will be found, and when they find the warrants, he will go to juvie. Or if he is an adult, he will go to a men’s prison. And that will begin his life as a felon. It will follow him everywhere.
Roberto is sleeping in an abandoned apartment. Hazel’s family lives nearby. Roberto is her secret. She makes up excuses and sneaks him food and supplies. His sustenance rests on his secret relationship with his childhood girlfriend. David gives him a sleeping bag. We put together a bag of provisions, including snacks and water for later.
As he leaves, he asks me not to mention that he is here to Hazel. He tells us she is possessive. That she would worry about him around Lucy and Edie. Teen girl jealousy and all.
I tell him it’s cool, we won’t tell.
When he leaves, we wonder about Roberto’s small, small life. How closed in and caged he must feel. Even having to be caged in an immature relationship, where he must consider her feelings while managing his own cramped options. But maybe he needs someone to give him guardrails and keep him in line. Maybe Hazel gives him the boundaries he needs. Maybe it’s enough that someone loves him so much as to be insanely, irrationally jealous. It is not always easy to tell the worth of a relationship from the outside.
We cannot see a path out for him.
Roberto is 15.
There are generally three factors that have significance when it comes to forecasting whether a kid will get in trouble with the law, according to Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children + The Search for Identity. (One of my favourite books of all time.) The first is a single parent household. These families tend to spend more time in poverty and experience more of the comorbidities of being poor. This covers more than 60% of Black families, 50% of indigenous families, and 40% of latino families. The second is abuse and/or neglect, and the third is, exposure to violence. Kids who experience the last two issues often either shrink from crime or follow it. They don’t view their world as safe. These are the kids who will commit nearly twice the crimes of their peers.
So what can we say about incarcerating teens? We can say that jailing kids removes them from their families, their siblings, their communities. It punishes children who have lived in poverty. It punishes kids who have been abused and/or neglected and have personally witnessed violence in their home or neighborhood.
We are jailing kids, with still-growing brains and fragile impulse control, for having been raised with difficulties outside of their control. The research bears this out. Solomon cites studies of aggressive baby monkeys fostered by gentle mothers. Babies with genetic predispositions to aggression leaned into gentle parental attachment.
Genes aren’t everything, Attachment to people is.
But if mom is working double shifts to keep up with the rent or everyone is walking around on eggshells because dad is an abusive drunk, or if the kids are hungry and worried about how they will get food, or someone has a mental illness and is not well, attachment gets pushed off. Emotional separation sets in.
The first rips in the family fabric.
Can schools help? Sure. But in many schools we put the kids who need more attachment, more support, in behavior modification rooms away from other students. We know teachers are not getting the resources and support to help challenging kids in their classes. Instead, we suspend. We fail. We expel. We institutionalize. We send them away. We hope the next consequence will fix them (It won’t. Consequences don’t work with many hurt kids). We cut them off from attachment. We separate them.
Then, when they don’t conform there, we jail them. We do this until criminality and being an outsider becomes their identity. Cue the rest of us, scene of a crime, shaking our heads and wondering: How did this happen?
This is how it happens.
We create criminals out of hurt kids like Roberto.
Roberto is having dinner with us again.
“I want to be a barber,” he tells us. “Have my own shop.”
His goals are so attainable.
It’s make-your-own burrito night, and we are gathered around the butcher block mounding leftover chicken guisado, cotija, shredded lettuce, hot sauces, and pickley creamy things into large tortillas. Made for us by a woman we know from the pantry who nixtamalizes her own corn.
Roberto is freshly showered. His clothes tumble in the dryer.
The doorbell rings.
I open it to find a stone-faced teenage girl looking at me. Her sisters and a girlfriend are behind her, also stone-faced.
“Is Roberto here?” Hazel’s eyes are narrow.
“Yeah, come on in.” I’m a little too chirpy. I sense trouble.
“Would you like to join us….there’s plenty left to make burritos.”
But Hazel and her posse aren’t having it.
“Hazel is here,” I hear my son, Raffi, tell Roberto, while stuffing one end of a bean and cheese burrito into his mouth.
Roberto looks terrified.
This kid shot an ankle bracelet off his leg, but the sight of his pissed off girlfriend sends him into terror.
(Sounds about right.)
“Shit,” he says under his breath.
She is pissed. He told her he wouldn’t come here again.. I remember how frighteningly tenuous teen relationships can be. They can withstand almost no waves or ripples. And a teen boy hanging around in proximity to a couple of teen girls, without his girlfriend to monitor them, proves too much for Hazel.
Hazel pushes him out to the patio. They argue quietly, while she talks furiously with her hands. She is crying rage tears. The boy has been caught in a lie. He is looking contrite. And terrified.
She says nothing to me.
Her mascara is smudged on one side. Her lips are pursed. Roberto is going. I grab the clothes in the dryer.
They leave. Together in a mad clump.
It strikes me as an example of how cruel immaturity can be, that the person who loves him and cares about him the most, who helps him feel less alone in the world, is also the person who removes him from the very few places of refuge he is allowed.
This relationship makes his world even smaller. And yet, he loves her, and needs her. He doesn’t have much else.
A couple of days later, I knock on the door of Hazel’s apartment. Maybe I can talk to her, like a mom. Assure her that she is welcome. That we are all trying to help Roberto, together.
When the door opens, I see men in Carharts replacing the windows and painting the walls.
“The family has moved out,” they say.
I regret not knowing his last name now. Or asking for his number.
I look for him when I’m out in Vegas. Searching faces. Trying not to let his face leave my memory.
I wonder about him.
Is he still hiding from the law? Making himself small and invisible? Or did they catch him? Is he back in juvie? Who visits him there? How scared is he?
Who loves Roberto these days?
I am afraid to know the answer.
Grace Young’s Beef + Broccoli can be found in her excellent book, Stir-frying to the Sky’s Edge.
You can buy Andrew Solomon’s book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children + The Search for Identity also at your local bookstore. It’s gigantic, but one of the most humane reads ever.
Thanks to everyone who read Bipolar last week and signed up. Happy to have you along.
Special big love to all of you who tried to pay me for the work. I see you. And God, I love you. But I’m figuring out this whole Substack thing and I’m not ready to take money. What I need more is for folks to buy my forthcoming book (if you can, no worries if not) and when it’s ready (not yet) and tell other people about it, bang drums and pots, send pigeons, write lovely amazon reviews, discuss on Goodreads, give it as a gift, etc. I will need help getting the word out.
Thank you in advance for that. Soon, soon.
As always, thank you for reading.
Thanks for reading The Dysfunction of Food! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Kim, so grateful to know you if only through Facebook. Now we have this! (I'm starting a Patreon but don't tell , it's not quite ready for Prime Time.)
It's haunting how these kids survive. You're a gift. So many who pass through your family are lucky to meet a kind heart, for many it may be the first. Can't wait for your book!
Another powerful story that I'll be thinking about long after finishing. I couldn't agree more with you about how the system treats "problematic" kids, and the importance of attachment and relationships. I've been reading a book called Beyond Behaviors, to help me figure out how best to help my neurodivergent kid (who has some not ideal behaviors), and all of the research points to the same answer for any kid with difficult behaviors: be a safe relationship for them (connection is key!), and look beyond observable behavior to understand what is causing it. The kid's behavior is often an adaptive response to another problem they are dealing with, be it trauma, sensory processing issues, neurodivergency, etc.