The twelfth floor button illuminates, we come to a stop, and the elevator doors open. My boot heels click loudly on the polished linoleum, the sound follows my brown suede steps, one foot in front of the other as we walk towards the waiting room at the NYCHA. The New York City Housing Authority.
I am here with a friend, Natalie, to help her wade through the process of finding protective housing.
Beige, the color that can't commit. It's not yellow and it's not white, it's the color of limbo. The floors, the walls, the ceiling, everything, is Beige.
We are here to get more of what is weighing down the bag around her shoulder and holding up the process of her finding a home away from danger. Paper...
Having sat in family court on the seventh floor retrieving photo copies of police reports, we are now returning upstairs to mend a spelling error caught on a letter. Papers, words, stamps, dates... Recorded moments in a life become her proof and evidence of torment.
Natalie stands at the front desk faced with two, very disinterested young girls, one of whom is flipping through facebook on her phone. She begins to explain her situation, a fight, a war, a family...
A corner of the room explodes with toys, books, crayons, and a filthy alphabet rug. A little boy and his big sister meander around, blinded by color and choice. Something they see little of once they leave this corner of the otherwise beige room.
Another family, another fight, another war...
A counsellor talks on the phone as she paces around the room. I eves drop as she explains...
"The children are staying with their grandmother when possible, but are in protective custody, and have been removed from their parents due to neglect."
Back on the alphabet rug, the little boy is almost three and his sister is seven. The young girl has taken over as parent, running to her little brothers aid when he gets frustrated, which is often. His frustration moves between screaming, crying, punching his sister in the face and hurling wooden toys and blocks across the room. He's in pain, and has no way to express himself. He's not old enough to use words yet. And even if he was, who does he tell? He is being shuffled around from home, to home, to home.
His little body finds emotional relief, by throwing, hitting, and screaming.
His sister constantly searches for ways to make him calm, all the while making excuses for him, explaining to us how he gets angry sometimes. She offers him a juice box which he promptly slaps out of her hand, she quickly, unemotionally moves to pick it up, without blinking an eye.
The counsellor paces while she talks, ignoring the boys outbursts for the most part, and embracing the little girls parental position. It gives her the freedom to separate herself and continue to find transportation to take her, and the children, to their next disappointment.
One foregoes a childhood to maintain the others childhood, these are little babies, desperate for stability, love, and a chance.
They are the human byproducts of a system in ruin.
The little boy begins to cry again, he is angry and wants his "baba" His bottle of milk, a bottle that is not with him and hasn't been with him during the several hours he has been here. He is hungry and has no patience left to give and has not learnt in his two and a half years how to breathe through hunger and frustration while remaining publicly polite.
He hurls a box of crayons across the room, his sister, exhausted, I step in...
I walk over and scoop him up, his screaming and flailing arms no match for a hug of mine. I wrap my arms around him as he tries to connect his fists to my face but I am an adult, I am enormous compared to his tiny little body and I hug him so close he simply can't reach. I rub his back in circles and pat him as he screams, I whisper in his ear that it's all going to be okay, and try to talk him into breathing. His little body relaxes into the back rub, but moves through moments of wanting to fight me. And fight me with every ounce he can muster. He is angry. He is tired, hungry, and in his two and a half years of life, he has suffered.,
"It's okay sweetheart"
I whisper to him and pat his back as I walk him around the room. I study the toys and see some soft blocks made out of fabric and batting. I give him a flurry of kisses on his cheek that tickles him, and he giggles. He moves out to stare at me, also confused. His bottom lip sticking out as he looks at me and tries to decide if he is supposed to want to cry...
The soft blocks are perfect because if he throws them, he can't hurt anything, or himself.
"Do you want to build a city?"
I ask him but give him no time to think about it. I plop him down and grab his little hand in mine and we begin collecting all the soft blocks. His sister, suddenly free to be a child again, begins collecting also.
The room stares at me as I crawl around on the alphabet rug picking up blocks and beginning to move things around. Another little boy that had been waiting with his mother stares at me also, so I invite him over to play as well. His mother, nursing a newborn smiles at me.
The girls behind the desk peek out to see me and whisper to each other, curious, the whole room changing as I get down on the ground.
The kids and I collect all the soft blocks, we build towers, me teaching them to be gentle with the blocks so the building doesn't topple. When we build it to the top, we knock it over and I make explosion noises as the kids laugh from their bellies and scramble to do it over and over again.
I clap and applaud their building skills, their working together and how gentle they are. I tell them how proud I am, and how clever they are. I clap and laugh with them and try to indulge the childlike imagination that life is trying to rape them of, and we play...
We all walk around the rug as I challenge them to be the first to find a letter. "M" The little boy yells proudly as he stands on the wrong side of a W. "Correct!!!" I say. I cheer and applaud as I pick him up and swing him around like he is flying.
His laughs making me laugh and in turn making the room laugh as we all end up in giggles. The beige room suddenly becoming bright and alive.
A mother, seeing me congratulating her son begins joining in. She congratulates him for finding the blue block, and then the yellow, and then the green!!!
My involvement was like a switch that woke the room up.
I sat and watched the children smiling, looking at each other, sharing and playing. I watched the adults in the room move from judgement, then curiosity, to joy and participation.
The counsellor kept covering the phone and whispering thank you...
My heart was broken however, knowing this was momentary. I wanted to put the children in my pocket and take them home with me. I wanted to put my hand in theirs and somehow give them strength to keep going.
It's so hard to look into the eyes of a child and see heartache, see pain, fear, anger. A two year old little boy already understands rage and heartache, loss and loneliness. It's unnatural, it's inhuman, and it's the beginning of so many children's lives.
I spent a few more hours there, playing with the kids. We had several more breakdowns, and plenty of laughs.
But his blood ran red with rage...
A tiny human, frantic. A tiny human wanting to explode, wanting to be free of the constant movement through adulthood, while still wearing diapers...
He would get frustrated and explode. Throwing toys, and running around trying to grab anything he could carry, so he could hurl it at anyone he could find. He is the beginning, and he is what lovelessness looks like. Angry, confused, violent and terrified. Each time he had a tantrum, I would pick him up and rub his back. I would let him know he couldn't have what he was screaming about until he stopped screaming, but if he wanted to scream, he could. So, he would scream, and I would hug him and rub his back, until he stopped.
The time came when I had to leave, and as I picked up my coat and bag, the little boy began to wail. He ran to me, wrapping his arms and legs around by boot.
He screamed, tears pouring down his cheeks. He lit up the room with the sound. His little eyes looking at me, I felt guilt for being yet another face that disappears from his life. A visitor, a moment of fun, and hope. A face that quickly, and inevitably, disappears. So many people come in and out of their days. So many people come, and go. Nothing stays, nothing and nobody is anything these children can depend on.
I picked him up and he gripped my neck, so tight. He pushed his cheek against mine and as I had done to him, he whispered...
I whispered back to him...
"You are a good boy, you are a strong boy. And remember, when you get very, very upset, just breathe... You are going to be okay sweetheart..."
I kissed his cheek over and over again. Then I tried to put him down, but he wouldn't let go. He just started screaming, gripping me, begging me not to go. One of the desk girls came out to take him from me. His little face, his little heart, broken.
I walked out with Natalie and headed back to the elevator. The clicking of my boots on the linoleum and the fading cries of a little boy I knew for only a moment, seemed deafening.
We walked, Natalies shoulder once again heavy with the paper weight of proof. And my heart, heavy with the weight of what felt like the world.
I was leaving building blocks, soft, hard, industrial and human...