Some people are molded by loss. Others, destroyed. But still there is another type of people. They aren’t broken. They aren’t proud. And they are not superheroes. They are just people, indifferent in entirety, moving each day without a single care, a single question. Life is just a daily meal. Served, chewed up, taken away before decay. Sometimes disgusting, sometimes elegant, but, in the end, it always gets taken away and brought to elsewhere. They have many names for these people- weird, disconnected, cold, heartless, cruel- but in reality they are only one thing: people.
I grew up in and out of homes, born to a family that could not- did not want to- care for anything, a child at the top of that list. I know little of my parents, but one fact, the fact that nearly all orphans instinctively know, they never wanted me.
That seemed to be the common consensus throughout the house. Billy, who later found himself in the Kansas State Penitentiary, swore his ma and pa were embarrassed to have a toddler running around in the Louisiana swamplands. Bobby, later arrested for tax evasion by the IRS, could not push past the fact that his folks gave him up to adopt a little girl (she grew up to become Miss Iowa). Jack, Jimmy, Nick, Al- they all had their own philosophies about why their parents left them, but none could be any more memorable than Charlie Young’s.
Charlie was the oldest boy in the home. He stood about six or seven inches taller than the rest of us and weighed nearly double. Growing up in the suburbs of New York, he had naturally obtained the accent the others, myself included, tried to perfect. We would run around playing cops and robbers, shooting down each other with little pop guns and yelling at the top of our lungs. Only one could be Al Capone and, unfortunately, it was always Charlie.
He was always a bit more privileged than, well, every other orphan. He had that natural born gift to speak. His words could get him out of anything. And his eyes were so large and girlish, it was amazing he was never adopted. But even more he knew why he was at the house.
It was a fire- a blazing sign straight from Hell, as he liked to claim- that had separated two loving parents, four children, and three dogs. Charlie was eight, stuck in the middle with his twin brother, Joe. The other two children, both girls, were across the hall- the youngest had waken with nightmares, ultimately discovering the curtains on fire. The entire first floor had already been disintegrated.
Charlie liked to claim that he barely escaped the jaws of death, but, in reality, he had. He was the only one to survive. Although it was a life altering event, Charlie seemed, at least then, to be fine. He never really talked about the fire except in rare moments when a smile would cross his face and he’d speak the words I had since come to remember: “My parents started that fire.”
Being one of the youngest boys at the home (I was only four when I arrived), the requests for my adoption was substantially higher than that of the others. Sure I felt guilty at times, but, in all honesty, I wanted a family. Family, then, seemed to have come from fosters, not from what I already had. In retrospect that home was my family. I had been given hundreds of siblings. Yet I threw it all away.
I barely recall my first set of foster parents, primarily because the amount to come (it would eventually total thirteen families, most of which are now blurred in vague memories). From records, however, I have come to realize that I was five and just about to start kindergarten. I wish there was more, but, based on the accounts, I was there for no more than a couple months. I was not the right fit.
My last set picked me up in the rain. Charlie, who had since been through nearly ten parents himself, waned it was a sign not to go. He believed in that kind of stuff. Anyway, I was just shy of nine when the letter came through. They picked me up in the rain. My new father was a doctor, barely ever relaxed unless there was a bottle of booze in his hand. My new mother had no job so I remained with her most the day. She was a good cook and pleasurable hostess, but there was something off about them. I was there about a year and had been beaten daily- a large well can still be found behind my left ear- and charged to a sense of pure slavery. They were alcoholics and not looking for a child but a tackling dummy.
I returned to the home that next summer. I was now in the dreadful double digits- a permanent time when your chances of adoption suddenly dropped from fifty percent to twenty five and that’s if you were lucky. Charlie had just reached fifteen, nearly a death sentence at the home. In three years, he’d be an adult. He’d be free.
“Boy,” he pulled me aside one night after dinner. He would never call me, or any other person for that matter, by name- boy was among the nicest. “Boy, you understand why you’re back, right? It’s not ‘cuz they didn't want you- ‘cuz they did- it’s ‘cuz your family is here. We gotta stick together, you understand, boy? Tonight I’m leaving. You wanna come, be there at nine.”
Of course I wanted to come. I wanted to escape the fates of the foster care system. But for those reasons, I could not leave. I watched the clock hands until nine, when, at that point, I rolled over and waited for the window to pop open.
It never did.
Charlie did not run that night. Nor the one after that or after that. It took him thirty-nine and a half days before he left.
The tallies were notched in my headboard.
With Charlie gone the entire home felt empty. We continued on with our daily lives. Breakfast at the crack of dawn, lunch at high noon, dinner at sundown. Cops and robbers was, naturally, played between lunch and dinner following our morning lessons. Nothing changed during that time except what was most important: my best friend- my brother- was gone.
No news reached the home about Charlie’s whereabouts. Billy like to fantasize that he had made it to the border now working cheap in Mexico. Little Jamie, who had come in about the same time I had left to the alcoholics, grew bold and said Charlie got arrested for murder (ironically Jamie later did). And perhaps most distressing, Bobby considered Charlie to be dead. Yet, for whatever reason- wishful thinking, hope, or just outright instinct- I knew that Charlie Young never left the town.
It had been forty seven days after Charlie left when he gave any sign of life: a pebble. I was laying back on my bunk when it hit my forehead, a nick right above my eyebrow. It could only have come from the ex-Little League outfielder Charlie. At the home we were put on mandatory regulatory schedules- bedtimes were not exempt, even to the oldest. Still, I remembered carrying all five feet of fatigue to the windowsill to look down in the darkness.
“Boy, come down.”
I did. That was my brother.
As it turned out, Charlie never went of the home’s premise. He had little contact with anyone or anything, but somehow, Charlie Young had managed to find a place in New York City.
“And you’re coming with me,” he finished off his spiel. Knowing I was going to protest, he lifted a small slip of paper between his fingers- my records. “You’re almost eleven. No one’s gonna adopt ya. COming with me is your only hope of life at all.”
Now, even to this day, I can remember what he looked like. His hair, which he always kept a bit longer, flopped down in front of his purple ringed eyes and he stood there with his arms crossed over his sunken chest- he hadn’t eaten in days. And that way he stood all while I gathered my scarce belongings as I set out for a new life.
New York City was huge. It had taken Charlie and I six buses, all the money we had gathered, by that I mean steal, plus a couple of our personal belongings (I lost a nice watch that day) and nearly every last bit of our energy. We arrived at the crack of dawn two days later.
Charlie claimed he knew a couple kids in the area. I didn’t ask how or why he knew them, I just trusted him as we trudged through the city streets.
It was the worst mistake of my life.
As it turns out when you run from a group home, you are almost automatically the most wanted person in the world. You’re seen as a troubled kid ready to do anything and apparently that means you’re going to blow up the capital or exploit the government’s deepest darkest secrets. I saw my face everywhere- billboards, televisions, milk cartons. I was famous.
Charlie, on the other hand, hated being on everything. He spat on every billboard, crushed every carton, kicked in every television screen. Within five weeks he had dyed his hair eight times in fear of being found.
Eventually, as our stay in the city lengthened, I too became self aware of what I looked like. My face had thinned and I had grown several inches (I now stood close to six feet). But still I looked far too much like the runaway orphan.
He and his friends sat me down and changed my hair.
Then my eyes.
Then my clothes.
Then my name.
At the home we watched a hefty amount of television, every Sunday night was Barnaby Jones, detective. If Charlie could be Alvin Rivers (after Al Capone and Rivers Cuomo), then I could be Barnaby B. Barker.
That was my second mistake.
Barnaby B Barker was not an orphan. He was not some poor sap leftover for someone to pick up the pieces. Barnaby was almost a superhero in comparison. Under the name of Barnaby B. Barker I did everything that I could never do before. I tore through the NYC streets each night stealing whatever I could get my hands on- food, money, booze.
I became the person I feared I’d become.
I became a criminal.
My crimping life is something, quite honestly, I’d like to forget. But I can’t. Once you become something, it always stays a part of you. There is no disposal of who you’ve become. Of course that meant I was still not a criminal somewhere deep down. Really, really deep down.
The first few weeks of that new life were some of my favorite. Each day was matched with a adrenaline and a warm meal (Note: The meals were never truly mine) until finally I had had enough. Coincidentally that was the same day Charlie had become a legal adult.
“Boy,” he grumbled, lost somewhere between booze and drugs. “I can adopt you now. We can be a family.”
At that point I was thirteen, lanky as hell, and forever hungry- not for food, for money. I guess you could say I reached the era of my legacy. And, as any teenager would know, I did not choose family.
So Charlie didn’t adopt me. We lived in the basement of the abandoned restaurant on Ninth, sleeping most the day and stealing most the night. Not much changed in our illegally necessary lives except that Charlie had made two new friends: cigarettes and the lady that sold them.
She was maybe two or three years older than Charlie- old enough to drink but young enough to still be hot. Charlie called her Mick. I called her Cigarette Lady. Her cigarettes were by far the best thing I ever tasted. I know now, having several bouts with lung cancer and liver scarring, that my decisions were not the healthiest, but, at the time, it was worth it.
Barnaby B. Barker had reached new extents.
Mick stayed around for a while. It didn’t matter much to me as long as she brought a fresh pack. She brought some gifts too. Spoons from Paris, plates from China, postcards from San Francisco, Tokyo, Spain- Mick had brought it all. She had seen it all. You see, Mick had been a world class traveler. From boat to boat, train to train, plane to plane, she had crossed the entire world. It was in my own dreams that fantasy lived, but it was in her life that it was accomplished.
Mick became my hero.
But then again there was another flaw in my judgement. Mick, or Michelle Veraspucci (as I later discovered thanks to CNN) was not some sophisticated international adventurer, she was a wanted fugitive in the United States, Portugal, Brazil, and, surprisingly, Ethiopia. All her little “gifts” were stolen from natural art museums and high profile landmarks. She had been buying us with cigarettes and sex. And whether Charlie knew that beforehand, I knew not.
Regardless, Charlie and Mick grew to be very, very close friends...too close I had feared at only thirteen. They were basically inseparable. From out daily shifts to nightly theft, it was always Charlie and Mick, Mack and Charlie. A kid like me had no place in their adult life.
I became very lonely during my best friend’s little fling. I kept watch alone. I stole alone. I ate alone. I became extremely independent, but I also became extremely depressed. We had escaped the home to be free from loneliness, desperation, and despair. Yet, there I was everyday without fail sitting solo as Charlie and Mick ran off somewhere. I grew to hate the only person I probably ever considered to be my friend. It was a dangerous game.
The summer of ‘03 was a life changing year for me. I had just turned fifteen- Charlie, with whom I was still furious with, had reached twenty- when the NYC commissioner’s office sent inspectors to examine the restaurant for reopening. Unfavorable definitely at that time, but, in the long run it gave me something much more favorable: an education.
I ran from the home at ten. I knew the basics; I could count, read, speak, and sign my name (or at least one of them), but anything further than that, well, I was hopeless.
The inspector, as Mick overheard, was to arrive on a Thursday afternoon- Thursday, August 29th. We tidied up our minimal belongings- ragged blankets, cigarette butts, shattered booze bottles. When we were done, the basement looked far too clean for an abandoned building. Mick brought us over to her old place- a crumbling tire shop tucked back behind the high rises. The inside was nice, a little draftier than our basement, but nice. I couldn’t see why Mick would have given it up.
But then I did.
Their names were Rex and Moxy- two giant Doberman mastiffs trained to kill. Their teeth jagged and razor sharp. Their eyes dark and cold. They were monsters. And they continuously haunt my dreams, however sparse sleep may come nowadays. But they were there to protect us, Carlos, Mick’s supposed brother, claimed. I grew to hate him as much as the dogs.
We stayed at that place for a couple weeks before, finally, I could not bear another second of sharing a bed with two beasts and a room with two adults in love.
Love is a real funny thing. For Charlie and Mick, well, it made them completely idiotic. For Carlos (he really loved his dogs), it made him an idiotic, fur-covered brute. As for me, I’m not saying that I wasn’t an idiot- because I was eventually- but love made me run.
Of course love had also set the inspector back two weeks (he had been on his honeymoon with his pretty little fiancé). So my breaking point had come on inspection day. Real convenient. I remember running to Ninth, tearing through the back door of the restaurant, and stumbling straight into his grasp.
“Kid, what are you doing here? This is private property! Restricted area!”
I stared at him. To this day I don’t know why I never ran, maybe I was tired of running. Nevertheless, he took a meaty hand to my arm, pulling me into his smoky breath. The wondrous smell churned my stomach.
“Where you from?”
I told him New York.
“Why you here?”
I was looking for my puppy.
He explained with a very gruff tone that there were no puppies in the building unless they could suddenly open doors. I thanked him and began to walk out when he grabbed my arm again.
“You look familiar.”
I shook my head.
“Maybe I know your pa.”
I shook my head.
“What’s his name?”
“Name? You know, like Bob Smith, John Doe?”
I kept staring.
“You know your pa?”
I shook my head.
“What about your ma? What’s her name?”
I thought quick. If he knew I was an orphan, it wouldn’t be long before all the pieces clicked. I told him her name was Ann Barker. And he bought it.
“Ann Barker? Huh...maybe I don’t know ya.”
I nodded and turned, almost to the door when he stopped me again.
“She know you ain’t at school?”
“You sick or somethin’?”
And then I started to bawl. I’m not proud of it, but it sure as hell worked. He stopped his inspection, put me in the front seat of his truck, bought me a coffee, and took me home to his new wife, who I later came to know as the woman who changed my life, Mrs. Christine Nulley. She was a high school teacher. She was my teacher.
Mr. and Mrs. Nulley kept my enrollment in school very low key. With no money for tuition, Mrs. Nulley kept late nights to teach me the lessons. I would arrive around four, shoot some hoops with Jim (that was his name), and then sit at their table for a warm dinner. After dinner, Mrs. Nulley would steal away to the den where she’d draw out the lessons on a large chalkboard and I’d sit there, copy them down and listen. She’d grow tired at times, but always kept a smile on her pearly face.
“Barnaby,” she said to me at the end of the lesson one night. “You got a good brain and with the right scholarships, you can go to college. You can probably do anything with that head of yours.”
My nights at the Nulley’s were some of my best. It had seemed that Barnaby B. Barker was more than a criminal, he was an actual boy with an actual future. I was learning and I was working hard and I wasn’t doing anything illegal. My life was turning around.
Charlie had found out almost a year later that I was becoming an educated boy. Carlos had told him I was becoming a civilized kid, too attached to my new “family.” He thought I’d slip up. Charlie asked if it was true. And it was. I loved being at the Nulley’s, I fantasized being a Nulley myself. And for that, I was prohibited to go to any more lessons.
I showed up to the Nulley’s one last time to say goodbye. I had rehearsed it over and over again on my walk over, but as I stood on their front stoop all I could mutter was, “I’m sorry.” Christine and Jim held me close as I explained how my mother had found work out west and how I needed to go. I remember how Christine took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and smiled.
“You’re a good kid, Barnaby. Promise me you’ll do something amazing with your life.”
I promised her and left before anymore damage could be done. Two weeks later I read in a newspaper that the Nulley’s had been killed in a house fire. I found the matchbook in Charlie’s pocket.
I sunk back into depression for my sixteenth and seventeenth years. The Nulley’s had died and, with it, my future. Charlie and Mick had eloped and were expecting a child. Carlos had become an abusive drunk. Rex and Moxy even turned against me leaving the nights colder than usual. I barely ever left the shop in those days. Night and day I was stoned or drunk or both. I smoked almost two packs a day. The height of my life had become lower than the start.
And it only got worse.
Charlie got into a wreck on the interstate about two weeks before the due date of his kid. He had been driving too fast and drank too much and stopped too late. The train creamed that son of a b****. Mick went into shock, miscarried the baby, and then overdosed. Suddenly one funeral had become two.
I didn’t attend either.
Carlos kicked me out by the time I had turned eighteen. I had no job, no future, no past, no present. I was a skeleton of a man tied to nothing and therefore had nothing. My crimes intensified and my guilt decreased. Everything I did was just how it was. It was all I knew how to do.
I became the criminal I was to be. And for that, your honor, I do admit to all these charges pressed against me. I did rob that Mini-Mart. I did drive drunk. I did murder the officer. I did tear apart that little girl’s family. I did hit and hurt that man. I did it all. And for that, I deserve the punishment set before me. I do not shudder in fear of what is to come. I knew from that day I stepped into that group home that this was who I’d become. I have watched everyone I knew from that place end up in these shoes. I am no exception. So, your honor, convict me with your worse. But I just have a few last words.
When I close my eyes, I don’t see the faces of those I’ve hurt or those that hurt me and there’ve been plenty both ways. I don’t hate Charlie or Mick or Carlos or the boys of my youth or my parents, whoever they may be. I don’t recall the visions of my pretty little bride and our little girl and the Nulley’s. All I see is blackness when I close my eyes because I had something long ago, but threw it away. My past kept me from remembering anything and now people will be remembering anything but the passed me. But I do have regrets. Many, many regrets. I don’t deserve forgiveness or even the slightest hint of respect. But for this much I do expect understanding:
The life of Barnaby B Barker is not a fairy tale, it never has been, but it could have been.