After her mental breakdown in 1986, Ma experiences six schizophrenic bouts in four years. She is hospitalized each time, sometimes for several months. Her breakdowns become more frequent and severe as her drug use increases. Ma always returns from the hospital healthier and more energetic than she’d been before her hospitalization. But each time, Ma resumes using drugs and, soon enough, has another relapse.
Ma falls into an endless pattern of drug use, breakdown, recovery, and relapse. (It’s worth emphasizing that this cycle is fueled by her own excessive use of drugs, rather than by Liz and her report of Ron’s abuse, as Liz seems on some level to fear.)
In Ma’s absence, Daddy does a good job of taking care of his children. He learns how to stretch the monthly relief checks as far as possible. He even gives Liz and Lisa a small allowance—although Ma later steals Liz’s savings to buy cocaine.
Although Daddy is addicted to drugs, he still has the intelligence and motivation to take care of his family. At the most basic level, Daddy seems to be a talented man and a good father, whose addiction keeps getting in the way of his potential.
In 1990, Ma and Daddy are at a low point in their relationship—not coincidentally, a time when they’re using more drugs than usual. They shout at each other, and Ma accuses Daddy of being “conniving.” Liz doesn’t know whether or not to believe Ma: maybe she’s right, but maybe she’s just sick.
Liz draws a clear connection between drug use and the breakdown of her parents’ relationship, suggesting that drugs both cause and exacerbate ill feelings between Ma and Daddy.
Liz says that she still thinks about a faint memory of Daddy. In this memory, Liz is about six years old. Daddy is walking by a park with Liz and Lisa when, suddenly, he turns away. Daddy tells Lisa to take Liz into the park, where he’s noticed a teenaged girl named Meredith. Lisa leads Liz by this teenager without saying anything. Daddy never talks about Meredith again, but Lisa later tells Liz that Meredith is Daddy’s daughter from a previous relationship, who Daddy abandoned when she was only two years old. Moving forward, Liz often feels that Daddy is “mysterious.”
In 1990, Ma begins sleeping on the couch instead of with Daddy. Sometimes, when Ma and Daddy fight, Lisa and Liz lock themselves in their separate rooms. Liz reads her father’s detective books, and in this way she becomes a good reader. Even though she isn’t going to school, she finds she can pass her year-end exams and thus qualify to move on to the next grade.
Miraculously, Liz continues to educate herself even while her parents are fighting and, presumably, barely taking care of her. While she’s set back by her poverty, malnutrition, and lack of sleep, Liz is obviously a highly intelligent girl.
With home life so repetitive, Liz looks for distractions outside the home. Since 1987, Liz has been friends with two brothers named Rick Hernandez and Danny Hernandez. Rick and Danny sometimes invite Liz to their house. Their mother is a kind woman, also named Liz (to keep things straight, we’ll call her Liz Hernandez). Instinctively, Liz knows not to tell her parents much about her friendships, and especially about her relationship with Liz Hernandez. Getting joy from someone else’s family always feels like “a betrayal.”
One day, Liz, Rick, and Danny make a “torch” for themselves by lighting a branch on fire, and then go into an old shed near the local nursing home. They accidentally set fire to the shed, and within a few minutes, the fire department arrives to put out the blaze.
Liz and her friends get into trouble in the neighborhood, although, it would seem, they’re never punished for burning down a shed. (It’s worth noting that, at this time, there were lots of larger buildings burning down in the Bronx, since many desperate people tried to collect fire insurance by burning down their own property).
Liz loves horsing around with Rick and Danny, and she’s always lonely when she returns to her own home. One night when Liz returns, Ma tells her that Daddy is “not a caring man.” Liz tries to convince Ma that Daddy loves her, but nothing works. Privately, Liz guesses that it won’t be long before Ma returns to the hospital.
In another reversal of parental roles, Liz, the young child, comforts her own mother, not the other way around. Even though she’s still young, Liz seems preternaturally wise. Years of taking care of herself and other people have made her unusually mature.
One day, Liz hears a knock on the door. Ma opens it and finds a young man standing outside. To Liz’s surprise, Lisa greets the man, Matt, by name and invited him into the living room. Liz realizes that this man is a representative from the Encyclopedia Britannica company—a few weeks ago, Lisa saw a commercial advertising two free volumes of the encyclopedia, and it appears that she called the company. Matt proceeds to give a lengthy presentation to the entire family. Liz is baffled—why would their family need to learn about history or science when it can’t even find food every day? In the end, the family never even receives its two free volumes of the encyclopedia.
It’s a mark of Liz’s changing view of education that, in this passage, she can’t yet see the purpose of owning a set of free encyclopedias (when later she comes to work incredibly hard to get into Harvard). It’s not that Liz isn’t interested in learning about the world; rather, she believes that the most practical and, ultimately, most interesting knowledge isn’t found in a textbook. Liz is obviously a highly intelligent kid, but for the time being she doesn’t grasp the point of a formal education—she’s too busy focusing on survival.
Shortly afterwards, Ma is committed to the hospital yet again. Bored and desperate for food, Liz meets up with a friend of Rick and Danny’s named Kevin, who claims he could find Liz some “odd jobs.” Liz learns that the job involves pumping gas for customers near the Bronx Zoo, and then begging for a tip. Over the course of the day, Liz learns how to pump gas and ends up making twenty dollars—a lot of money for her. She learns how to be confident and look the drivers right in the eye until they agree to give her money. She wonders “what other opportunities were out there for me.”
Instead of continuing to depend on her parents’ money (i.e., government relief checks, which her parents blow on drugs), Liz empowers herself by finding her own “job.” As the passage shows, she develops self-confidence as a result of her work, and begins to realize that she has more agency and opportunity than she previously believed.
The next day, Liz goes out to Fordham, hoping to find more work. She walks down the Grand Concourse, asking for jobs at the different stores. Each time, the owners turn her away, pointing out that she’s far too young. Eventually, she returns to pumping gas. By afternoon, she’s made another twenty dollars. She begins to feel invincible—she imagines buying her own bus ticket and traveling far away.
Liz encounters some adversity while trying to make money, but she doesn’t give up; instead, she keeps searching, and, when she can’t find a better job indoors, returns to the job she did before. A combination of curiosity, desperation, and innate ambition inspires her to make her own money.
At the end of the day, Liz goes into a grocery store and decided to “take things,” as she’s done many times before with Rick and Danny. But then she notices the checkout area. After watching carefully, she realizes that she can stand behind a cash register and collect tips from the customers. She takes her place, and nobody stops her. She works quickly to bag customers’ groceries, and collects tips in return. She feels very proud of herself. At the end of the day, however, she slips a small container of cheese and crackers into her pocket and walks out with it.
One interesting thing to notice about this passage is that Liz behaves responsibly and irresponsibly at the same time: she does honest work in return for money, but she also breaks the law by stealing food. In a way, Liz is “dipping her toe” into making an honest living: she works hard but also commits a minor crime (and she’s committed similar minor crimes in previous chapters).
Liz gets a call from Ma, who’s currently in the hospital. Ma complains that the hospital is harsh—she hates not being able to smoke or use drugs. When visiting Ma in the hospital, Liz hates the nurses for the way they speak to Ma—as if she were a small child.
Liz is concerned for her mother and tries to respect her dignity—although, arguably, Liz herself has treated mother like a small child earlier in this very chapter.
Liz sometimes watches Lisa put on a bra. This fascinates Liz: Liz is young and boyish, and sometimes people call her a tomboy. She doesn’t feel like a boy, but she doesn’t feel she has anything in common with “girls who wore frilly dresses,” either.
Echoing some of the stereotypes that her father brought up in the previous chapter, Liz focuses on being independent, hard-working, and tough—characteristics that are sometimes coded male, hence her reputation for being a tomboy.
One night shortly after Ma returns from the hospital, she comes back to the apartment late at night, waking up Liz. She complains to Liz that “this guy,” a local drug dealer, has refused to take Lisa’s winter coat in return for some drugs, instead telling her, “Go back to your kids.” Ma begins going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. But she keeps selling her children’s things for cocaine.
This is arguably the low-point in Ma’s relationship with Liz: she’s so desperate for cocaine that she’s willing to endanger her child (you can’t get by without a warm coat in New York City) just to have something to sell for drugs. Even Ma’s drug dealer feels that he can’t accept such a payment, and shames Ma for her behavior.
Money continues to be scarce for the family. Liz tries to go back to the grocery store again, but she always finds that the checkout stands are full. One night, Liz stays up late working on a diorama for school. In the middle of the night, she wakes up to the sound of Ma crying. Liz begins to hug Ma and comfort her, which she’s used to doing. Suddenly, Ma tells her, “I’m sick, I have AIDS.” Even after Ma insists that she’ll be fine, Liz knows the truth: Ma is going to die soon. Furious, she smashes her beautiful diorama to pieces.
Echoing her behavior in previous chapters, Liz seems preternaturally wise: she grasps that her mother is going to die without her mother explicitly saying so. Additionally, the passage emphasizes the conflict between Liz’s home life and her academic career: she can’t flourish in school because her home situation is so stressful and unreliable.