I exited the office building on Court Street, paused briefly to gather my bearings and take in my surroundings. It was well after noon and the lunch hour crowd buzzed by me, walking fast and furiously, some purposely. I loved downtown Brooklyn in the summertime. Reminded me of my youth.
There was activity across the street in Columbus Park. A statute of the explorer stood watch over the park and the lunchtime activities. The Office of the Borough President of the County of Kings sponsored these events every summer across Brooklyn, but of course something seemed to almost always be happening in downtown Breukelen, the “center” of the “broken land,” as the Dutch named it. A makeshift stage was set up in front of the Municipal Building and a group of kids in blue tee shirts was singing something with a Caribbean beat, moving rhythmically as one. I looked from the stage to the court, which was practically across the street from the office building I leased space. Many a day I had spent in the court when I was a police officer and then a detective, waiting to testify, offering support to victims. I watched a few people go through the revolving doors.
I walked south on Court Street and turned right on to Remsen Street to head to the promenade. I walked one block, passed St. Francis College, “the small college of big dreams.” Students, mostly young white women in small groups, were in front of the building for the length of the block. Many were smoking cigarettes, holding them with fingers with fingernails painted every color of the rainbow as they chattered away like parakeets, their faces flush with the excitement of youth.The next block featured some of Brooklyn’s most beautiful brownstones, many dating back to the 1800s. Brooklyn Heights, where some of the most expensive real estate in the borough exists.
I quickly walked the couple of blocks to the promenade, walking by both young and older Black women pushing strollers with white kids in them. Most of the women had Caribbean accents. It sometimes seems like the more things changed, the more they remained the same. I couldn’t, wouldn’t, though, knock what people did for a living if it was honest.
I am a born and bred Brooklynite, and ever since I was a teenager, when I worked summer jobs in downtown Brooklyn, I would walk to the promenade. The view, overlooking Manhattan, was probably one reason why the real estate was so expensive in Brooklyn Heights. If you couldn’t afford to live in certain parts of Manhattan, then perhaps this was the next best thing: a great view of it. The World Trade Center dominated the skyline. There were a couple of small boats on the East River, probably some residents from Brooklyn Heights on some of them on this beautiful summer day.
I sat on a bench, became part of this scene, and withdrew my mobile phone from its case, speed-dialed my cousin’s office.
“You have reached the voice mail of Khandi Johnson of the Administration for Children Services…”
I hung up, speed-dialed Khandi’s mobile.
“Hell-o, General Alexander,” Khandi answered in a melodious voice.
Growing up my brother and I were called the “little generals.” This, however, was a reference to my military service, though of course I didn’t attain a rank anywhere near general. Right out of high school, to escape the projects, I enlisted with the Marines, did two tours, saw combat at the beginning of my second tour, was part of Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in 1983. Part of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“How may Private Johnson assist you, sir?”
“Hell-o, Alex!” She giggled. After all these years, she still got a kick out of this routine.
“My first client walked into my office today.”
“Ah, that’s great!”
“A grandmother, wants me to find her granddaughter, who ran away from a foster home.”
“What agency was she placed with?”
“Children Are Our Future. I need to talk to someone over there.”
“Wilhelmina Coles. She’s one of the directors over there. Good people. Got your pad, General?”
She gave me the number, which I wrote down in a small pad, continued this practice since I was a beat cop.
“No problem. Gotta go. Love you, General.”
She hung up before I could reply in kind.
I started walking back toward Court Street. If you grew up in New York City, three things you shouldn’t be averse to: crowds, public transportation and walking. I liked walking. Nowadays, it seemed like the only exercise I got. When I got to Court Street, I decided to walk the couple of blocks to Children Are Our Future. I could’ve called ahead, but that would give whomever I wanted to talk to the opportunity to talk to superiors, put red tape in the way. I knew from experience that it was always better to talk to people in person rather than on the phone.
It took about twelve minutes to walk the couple of blocks east on Fulton Street, despite the buzz of activity, people shopping and window shopping during their lunch hour, which mostly meant stalling on the sidewalks and preventing one like me, a non-shopper, from walking without side-stepping, stopping on a dime, excusing one’s self when one nearly ran over someone, out of politeness, not because one meant it. Such was the lunch hour in downtown Brooklyn.
I stood in front of Children Are Our Future. It was a three-story building, owned by the agency, I had learned from the NYNPP article, which I had re-read shortly after the Blacks left my office. I walked through two glass double doors. There was a big Latino sitting at a desk. Security. He didn’t look like an ex-cop or ex-military. He didn’t look like an ex- anything.
“I’m here to see Wilhelmina Coles,” I said in my cop tone, which was deeper than my normal tone. I pulled out my badge, flashed it quickly, an indicator that I was looking to be discreet. The big guy picked up the phone. I looked around and took in my surroundings. The walls were painted light blue, with orange trim. There were framed posters with children and uplifting legends beneath them. To my right there was a winding spiral stairway leading to the second floor. Many young women, dressed casually in jeans and bright colored short-sleeved blouses, were moving about, revolving through a door where I spied comfortable-looking orange chairs in which people were seated, parents, I guessed, mostly women, and their children, visiting.
The big guy was still on the phone. In a hushed tone in a slight Puerto Rican accent he said, “Ms. Coles, you got a detective down here to see you.” A brief pause. He looked up at me. “Alexander Jones?”
I nodded my head. He hung the phone up a minute later, pointed to the elevator. “Go to the third floor. Ms. Coles will be waiting for you at the elevator.”
“Thanks,” I said.
The elevator was old and reliable. Otis. Elisha Otis. He invented the first modern elevator in 1853. Incorporated Otis Elevator Company. Nearly 150 years in the elevator business. Old and reliable.
The elevator stopped on the second floor and two very young women, probably right out of college, got on. They held enormous case files, probably why they were taking the elevator up one flight. In their conversation they referenced birth parents and foster care parents, talked about how both were driving them crazy.
The elevator door closed and when it opened on the third floor, a woman, whom I presumed was Wilhelmina Coles, was standing there, as the big Latino had said. The young women exited the elevator first. “Hi, Willie!” they both said in unison.
“Hello, ladies,” the woman replied. She then addressed me. “Alexander Jones.” She was short, light-complexioned, with short hair framing a perfect oval face. She quickly scanned me, from head to toe, quite discreetly.
She extended her hand, which I shook. “Wilhelmina Coles. Call me Willie. Khandi called and told me to expect you. Please, this way.”
I followed Willie to her office. She sat behind a desk piled high with paper. She beckoned for me to sit in one of the two burgundy chairs in front of her desk. I sat. Behind her was a collage of pictures of children framing her MSW degree from Hunter College.
She cut right to the chase. “This is about the Alston case.”
Despite the fact that the case was against the father and his girlfriend, ACS designated all cases that came into care with the mother’s name – mother’s baby, father’s maybe?
“Capri in particular.”
“The paternal grandmother, Erma Black, had stated that she was hiring a private investigator to find her granddaughter, and that we should cooperate. But more importantly, Khandi gave me a call. So how may I help you?”
“Off the record: what’s your assessment of this family?”
“I’ve worked in this field for longer than I care to tell you. I try not to be jaded. But I think of that opening line from Anna Karenina: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ I minored in English,” she said by way of explanation. “Maybe I’m saying this because Capri seemed so sad, and unhappy. Working in this field, you see this unhappiness in every case, and despite the broad categories of abuse and neglect, each case is unique. And this case, as with all cases and all families, comes with history and family secrets; some of these ‘secrets’ we know. For example, this isn’t the first time the girls were in care.”
Of course Mrs. Black had neglected this part of the family history when she had told me that the mother had abandoned the girls. “Mrs. Black told me that Capri and her sister Caymani were abandoned by their mother when they were very young.”
“Yes. And Mrs. Black was the kinship foster parent. A case was also opened against her but was unfounded.”
I would find out more about this from Mrs. Black. I was tempted to ask Willie why a case was brought against Mrs. Black, but thought I’d be pushing her ethical boundaries. “I will need to talk to the case worker.”
“I checked. He’s in court.”
I reached into my inside jacket pocket, passed Willie a business card. “Please have him call me. His name?”
The named stirred something buried deep within me. I never forget a name, could quickly put names to faces. “Please have him call me first thing in the morning,” I said with more of a sense of urgency.
“Will do.” She paused. “May I ask a personal question?”
“What branch of the military were you in?”
“You have perfect posture.”
“Thank you.” The military instilled things in you that you’d take to the National Cemeteries. I can’t say it’s my posture, because family and friends, since I could remember, had commented that I stood and walked just like my father.
One of the two phones on Willie’s desk rang urgently. It literally shook on the receiver. She picked it up, shortly groaned, “Oh, God. I’ll be right down.” She stood. “Sorry, but we have a situation, a birth mother going ballistic. We get this at least once a day, on a good day.” She smiled.
“Maybe you should’ve majored in English,” I said.
“We’ll walk downstairs together.”
We were out of the office, walked quickly down one flight of stairs and then the spiral stairs. The big Latino, in a soft voice, was trying to calm a big Black woman wearing what was obviously a wig, which was askew on her head.
“You motherfuckers take my babies, say I can’t see them unless it’s supervised, so I come down here to visit my babies and the goddamn foster motherfucker isn’t here!” She was gesturing with her hands, shadowboxing. The big Latino was bobbing and weaving, surprisingly light on his feet
“Esther,” Willie said in a firm but respectful voice, as if she was talking to a friend, “your visit is scheduled for 3 o’clock. It’s barely five after. Your children will be here shortly.”
It couldn’t have been scripted better. “Shortly” was followed by three children running through the agency’s double doors, ice cream mostly on their faces but in their hands on cones, to their mother. The foster mother was right behind them.
“Sorry, Esther,” the foster mother said quickly in a Caribbean accent as the children huddled around their mother, “but the kids made me stop for ice cream. You know how they love ice cream. If I didn’t get them their ice cream…”
The big Black woman broke down, crying hysterically –hopefully out of shame, I thought. Nevertheless, she had the presence of mind to straighten the wig on her head. Then I witnessed something absolutely sweet: the three small children group hugged and comforted their mother. She stopped crying as quickly as she had begun.
Willie smiled and winked at me.