LaJoe is called to the local welfare office because, in light of the allegation that her husband sometimes sleeps at home, her eligibility needs to be re-examined. Nervous and subdued, she is taken to the “interrogation room,” which is an austere, impersonal room where four people walk in without introducing themselves and begin to question her about her husband’s habits. LaJoe speaks in such a soft voice that the inquisitors have to lean in to hear her.
LaJoe’s attitude at the welfare office reveals her inability to project herself in a clear, confident way and defend her rights. The impersonal quality of the interrogation room contributes to making her feel that these people are less interested in hearing her story and protecting justice than in judging and punishing her.
The inquisitors show LaJoe evidence, such as joint tax incomes and her husband’s unemployment benefits, where Paul has claimed LaJoe’s apartment as his residence. Even though LaJoe does not actually receive any money from Paul and desperately needs her welfare money, which she spends mostly on groceries, she finds herself unable to defend her case. Troubled, LaJoe walks out of the room without denying that Paul occasionally spends the night nor asking about her legal or social rights.
Perhaps out of shyness or a lack of understanding that she can actually defend herself, LaJoe seems resigned to lose her benefits and does not explain the complexity of her situation. It seems that what would have benefited her most—and would have ensured that her rights be protected—is more guidance and counsel, as well as information about what her various options are.
When she arrives home, Lafeyette, who knows his mother has gone to a meeting about her welfare benefits, asks her about it, and LaJoe tells him they will no longer receive any. Lafeyette is visibly upset, and LaJoe decides not to tell Pharoah about it because Pharoah has tried hard to keep from being burdened by adult problems—an attitude of denial that seems to give him some inner peace. While LaJoe feels guilty of burdening Lafeyette with these problems, she realizes that he is the only person he can confide in.
LaJoe’s isolation only increases her stress, but overcoming this isolation by confiding in Lafeyette increases his stress, which keeps him from protecting his childhood like Pharoah. The family clearly lacks adequate outlets to express their emotions and a feeling of control over seemingly unfair events such as the removal of welfare benefits.
Lafeyette responds to his mother’s trust by wanting to protect her and shield her from the difficulties of life. One year ago, after LaJoe and Rochelle were robbed by two teenagers who severed nerves in LaJoe’s fingers with a knife, Lafeyette swears that he would have killed them had he been there. This time, after LaJoe loses her benefits, he joins her at night when he sees her worrying. He asks her why he doesn’t simply kick Paul and LaShawn out, since they bring her so much trouble, but LaJoe says she could not do that, evoking their drug problems to argue that she needs to take care of them. Lafeyette says that his mother should stop being “weak-hearted.” He knows that she has such difficulty saying no to people, which can make her seem passive and weak.
Lafeyette’s eagerness to help his mother also leads to frustration when he finds himself unable to resolve the situation, for example when the problem lies in the past (as in the theft) or when it has to do with LaJoe’s personality (as when LaJoe cannot say no to her children). His inability to truly comfort his mother or to keep himself from worrying comes from his inability to influence their outward environment—to prevent violence in the neighborhood and to change LaJoe’s patterns of behavior. In this situation, both Lafeyette and LaJoe seem doomed to the only course of action: worrying.
To comfort his mother, Lafeyette tells LaJoe that he will one day have a white house, outside of the projects, where he will take care of all his siblings instead of living in the projects. At other moments, Lafeyette’s strong desire to leave Horner sometimes can lead him to become aggressive, wanting his mother to try harder, and to suggest that he quit school to work. Frustrated by the difficulty for life at Horner to improve, he tells LaJoe that speaking and sharing his thoughts is useless, since nothing ever changes.
Unable to solve the problems in the present, Lafeyette resorts to a kind escapism similar to Pharoah’s daydreaming: a belief in a more positive, fantastical future, in which there will be no problems. However, when such thoughts prove unfeasible in the immediate future, Lafeyette gives in to frustration, anger, and cynicism, retreating even more deeply into himself without trusting the world around him.
Lafeyette feels used to disappointment, and to knowing that he can only rely on his mother, his brother Pharoah, and himself in life. His “associate,” James, has succeeded in moving out of Horner, after his mother reached the top of a waiting list for subsidized housing. While Lafeyette might feel sad about losing his friend, he rarely seems to dwell on the issue. LaJoe realizes that, by worrying so often about their family with Lafeyette, she has forced her son to turn into “a twelve-year old man,” someone who shoulders heavy responsibilities.
Lafeyette’s decision to only trust his close family might give him a sense of security about preventing possible disappointments, but does not relieve his frustration or discouragement, since his family is so often the source of his worries. Although he has been forced to grow up prematurely to take care of others, Lafeyette lacks his own support network, which could provide him with comfort and reassurance.
Pharoah learns about his mother’s situation a few weeks later after the fact, when he realizes that LaJoe is no longer doing her monthly shopping. He does not seem too upset by the news, instead trying to not make her mother feel bad about it. In the meantime, LaJoe receives some help from friends and family, who help by giving her food stamps and food, but she begins to play cards for money to help her family survive. Often, she plays through the night and only comes home in the morning. When she isn’t home to prepare breakfast for the children, Lafeyette takes over and gets everyone ready for school.
Pharoah’s reaction to the news about his mother’s welfare benefits is surprising, since LaJoe had thought he would be worried. Perhaps what usually upsets Pharoah is violence, and he does not fully understand the importance of welfare, or perhaps he has become more accustomed to unfortunate events. Either way, this situation proves Pharoah and Lafeyette’s capacity to take care of their own lives without further burdening their mother, even if this might not bring them comfort or emotional relief.
While LaJoe has also searched for work, her extreme shyness has often made her seem overly nervous or detached during interviews. Her worries also make her feel stressed and tired, which sometimes leads her to lash out in anger against her children, for which she later tries to apologize.
While LaJoe’s personality might make her seem passive, she does actually try to find work. Her personal troubles impact her family, as they generate a climate of stress and frustration, thus proving that family cannot be a perfect buffer against a difficult environment.
LaJoe still has an appeal hearing with a judge to give her response to the Public Aid’s case, but she feels resigned to losing her benefits. At the same time, she is angry to be deprived of money that she so sorely needs. She feels that any social worker who would visit her apartment would immediately know that she is not trying to cheat the system, but that she truly deserves her welfare benefits.
LaJoe’s feelings of injustice lead to frustration, but this does not prove sufficient to make her defend her case more aggressively. Rather, the unfairness of the system only increases her apparent passivity. This is a crucial moment, though, in which greater assertiveness could have alleviated her troubles.
Feeling guilty about this situation, Paul himself tries to talk to a caseworker before the appeal, explaining his problems with drugs and his separation from LaJoe. He asks that this information be kept confidential from his employer, but the caseworker understands this as a request for confidentiality in general and does not mention any of this at the appeal hearing, thus further weakening LaJoe’s arguments. Her weak defense at the hearing is deemed insufficient, and the judge decides to take away her benefits, noting that she can choose to reapply.
Paul’s willingness to step up to defend the truth and LaJoe shows that, while he might not always be present in his family’s life, he does care about their well-being. While his testimony could have played an important role in allowing LaJoe to keep her benefits, mere miscommunication or inefficacy invalidates his attempt to help. LaJoe’s benefits are thus taken away for superficial reasons, not because of any actual cheating on her part.
In the meantime, violence at Horner continues to traumatize the children. Pharoah shakes at any loud noise, and Lafeyette desperately wants to get out of Horner. When Alonzo Campbell, a nine-year-old friend of theirs, is shot in the head because of a stray bullet, this shooting raises outrage in Horner because of how it contrasts with another, widely reported event that takes place around the same time. After an emotionally disturbed woman shoots at a group of children in an elementary school at Winnetka, citizens mobilize to give the children psychological help and to denounce gun laws, thus giving the shooting a visibility that the one at Horner never receives.
Even though Horner residents sometimes seem resigned to their isolation and incapable of taking collective action to solve their problems, they are capable of recognizing injustice when the violence they suffer on an ordinary basis is so blatantly ignored by the media, which prefers to focus on a wealthier area in the region. The contrast between these two events only highlights the neglect that Horner residents suffer from and the invisibility of their often tragic lives.
The contrast between Alonzo’s violent experience at Horner and the publicity that the Winnetka murder receives, which spurs nationwide social debate and activism, reveals the injustice between what is considered ordinary and extraordinary violence. To many Horner residents, it highlights the extraordinary burden that they have to bear, as such tragedies form part of their everyday life, whereas other people experience them as extraordinary occurrences. LaJoe tells herself that she needs to keep on moving rapidly through her life, because she might go crazy if she stops to think about what she and her children have been through.
While it might seem logical that people who are accustomed to violence might be able to bear it more easily, the opposite seems to be true: LaJoe is highly aware that violence is capable of driving her insane, and that the only way to cope with it is not to think about it. As soon as Horner residents are moved to think about the violence they endure—like during moments of crisis after Alonzo’s murder—their anger and indignation comes forth, revealing that they do not, in fact, consider their current life ordinary or acceptable.