When Pharoah’s two pet goldfish die, the young boy cries for hours but goes to bury them in the ground by his building, handling the emotions of this event on his own.
Pharoah’s deep emotional response to the death of his two goldfish highlights his sensitivity and childlike innocence. It also emphasizes how entirely overwhelming his environment is, which is filled with death on a much wider scale than just goldfish.
The apartment has become seriously overcrowded, as LaJoe’s eldest daughter, LaShawn, has moved back in with her boyfriend, Brian, her boyfriend’s brother, and her two children, Tyisha and Darrell (nicknamed “Baldheaded). LaJoe does not want to kick her own children out of her apartment and feels that LaShawn, who is addicted to drugs, might not be able to take care of her own children. When LaJoe’s husband, Paul, stays the night, the small apartment totals thirteen people. While this makes Pharoah feels safer, he also finds himself unable to focus on his schoolwork.
LaJoe’s love for her family carries both positive and negative consequences, as it allows others to benefit from her care but takes a serious toll on her own comfort and well-being, as well as that of her children. Her inability to say no makes it easy for other people to take advantage of her, without reciprocating the same time and energy that she freely gives to her family.
While LaJoe understands the dangers of leaving some of her children homeless in a neighborhood without any homeless shelters, she also soon becomes overwhelmed by the stress of having so many people around her, since she worries about everyone’s problems. LaJoe suffers from episodes of such severe anxiety and stress that she at times loses her temper and finds that her body is affected physically by the violence and general insecurity in her life. Most recently, Terence has been arrested for his alleged participation in an armed robbery, and the Department of Public Aid is threatening to take away her welfare benefits because they have been told that her husband sometimes stays with the family.
Because of the lack of adequate services in the neighborhood, LaJoe takes in too many people in her apartment and becomes burdened by a situation that more efficient social institutions could have alleviated. At the same time, LaJoe does have some control over what happens in her house. She could perhaps protect herself more by being firmer with people who take advantage of her generosity or fighting more tenaciously against certain dangers such as losing her welfare benefits.
LaJoe’s most severe disappointment in her family has been Terence. LaJoe’s family responsibilities began early. She met Paul Rivers when she was barely fourteen and Paul seventeen. They started a family immediately, as LaJoe gave birth to LaShawn and then Weasel within two years of their meeting. Paul used to be a boxer, a voracious reader, and an active debater of politics, but he soon proved unfaithful and, over time, addicted to drugs. Even though LaJoe wanted her children to have a stable father figure in their life, which many families in the neighborhood sorely lacked, the couple’s relationship began to fall apart when she learned about her husband’s drug habit.
Like her own children, LaJoe was forced to grow up prematurely and face adult responsibilities in the middle of adolescence. In addition, she was largely left alone to take care of her children, thus handling the difficult tasks of parenthood on her own. Despite LaJoe’s love for her children, these conditions created an unstable family foundation from the very beginning—financially and, perhaps, emotionally—as Paul and LaJoe both seem unprepared for such a long-term investment.
Unable to say no to anyone, LaJoe did not want to kick Paul out, and over the years, she had Terence, Lafeyette, Pharoah, and the triplets with him. LaJoe used to work off and on as a clerk but, during times of unemployment, has depended on welfare benefits. As her marriage crumbled, LaJoe found comfort in her son Terence, whom she loved dearly and felt close to. However, when the younger children were born, Terence began to feel that he was no longer receiving enough attention from his mother. As a result, at the age of nine, Terence decided to leave the house. Charles, a local drug dealer took care of him, adopting him into his home and using the young boy to sell drugs.
LaJoe’s decision to continue having children with Paul despite their economic struggles and the disintegration of their relationship remains hard to explain. Terence’s decision to leave the home at such a young age is also hard to understand—Terence wanted more attention and love from his mother, but by leaving the house, he cut himself off from that possibility. It is possible that a stressful family environment and, perhaps, negative pressures from the neighborhood all contributed to make him feel unhappy and alienated.
When LaJoe discovered, months later, what had happened to her son, she was still unable to bring him back. Terence would stay home for a few days after being caught by the police, but he would then escape again. Paul decided to intervene. In a bold move, he confronted Charles directly, but Charles argued that Terence should be free to make his own choices. The confrontation between the two men risked turning violent, as Charles’s friends offered to kill Paul, which Charles refused. This episode had a temporary effect on Terence’s behavior but, in the end, the young boy has continued to escape his home.
Paul’s decision to fight for his son to return is surprising, given his usual lack of involvement in family affairs. His willingness to confront Charles also shows courage, given the intensely violent nature of the drug-trafficking world. However, Terence’s behavior remains hard to understand. While both his parents clearly wanted him back, he still felt the need to leave his home and engage in illegal activities. This gestures to the profound pressures that exist in the outside world, which Terence’s parents couldn’t protect him from.
The reasons for such behavior remain unclear. In the neighborhood, it is so common for young people to fall prey to the attraction of crime and drug trafficking that families learn to give up on their children, considering that those who leave are not their children anymore. Terence, though, loves and misses his family. Lafeyette adores his brother and wants him to come home, but Terence usually just gives him some money before heading off again. Once, when Terence found out that his father had been robbed, he sent money to his family’s apartment to compensate for his father’s loss.
The routine nature of cases like Terence’s suggests that there is a structural phenomenon, beyond individual will, that is at play in the neighborhood—which sometimes attracts young men to street life, regardless of how much their family loves them or how much they love their family. The mystery of such a process is all the more baffling for LaJoe, who feels deprived of all parental control and influence.
After an incident with his mother, Terence finally returns home. Seeing LaJoe in the street, he asks his mother for a few dollars. While LaJoe refuses, saying she has no money on her, she later returns with grocery bags in her hand, which her son helps her carry. This episode impacts Terence, who realizes that his mother is teaching him a lesson, and that he wants to go home. However, he does not succeed in staying away from illegal activity, as he begins to shoplift and use the money to buy drugs.
The realization that his mother is unwilling to give him money unless he proves himself as a responsible son was a wake-up call for Terence, who understands that his mother can (and will) punish him for leaving the home. Terence’s fear of becoming excluded from his family seems to have been the main motivation behind his decision to return. This highlights the strong bond that exists between members of the Rivers family, whatever wrong actions they might have committed.
Terence also briefly joins the Disciples, taking part in fights and witnessing one of his friends get killed. He soon abandons the gang when, after being sent to prison, he realizes that none of the gang members come to visit him. Terence also struggles to care for the children he has fathered after having his first child, Terence (nicknamed Snuggles), at the age of fourteen, just like his mother. By the age of eighteen, despite occasionally trying to have a legal job and stay away from trouble, Terence has been arrested forty-six times.
Terence’s realization that gangs are not reliable in the same way that his family might be serves as an important lesson, highlighting the fact that gangs are not organized around principles of solidarity but around self-interest—that of the group as a whole, as well as of individuals within that group. In light of the struggles that LaJoe has gone through after having her first child at fourteen, the future of Terence’s family remains precarious and uncertain, especially given Terence’s own criminal record.
Meanwhile, in 1987 and 1988, many taverns in the north side of Chicago are suffering from robberies, in which a few black males break into video game machines to steal the change inside. The robberies follow a common pattern, and the police soon organize to stop the young men. Still a juvenile, Terence is arrested during one of these robberies. Two weeks later, he is accused of participating in an armed robbery, after a tavern owner recognizes him in one of the police’s pictures. When the police comes to the apartment to arrest Terence, however, he proclaims his innocence. Despite LaJoe’s protests, the officers handcuff him in front of Lafeyette, Pharoah, and Snuggles, who begins to cry for the police to leave his father alone.
The police’s lack of sensitivity when it comes to protecting family life has the potential to affect not only the life of the person who is arrested, but also that of the young, vulnerable witnesses. In the same way that seeing death at a young age might have made Lafeyette emotionally closed-off, seeing his father’s arrest at such a young age could traumatize Snuggles for life. It could also normalize such events, perhaps making him see arrests as an ordinary occurrence in life. These episodes merely add to the physical and emotional violence the children already experience at Horner.