Before going to bed at night, Richie Blandon usually took his school clothes to the kitchen sink. He washed the blue slacks and the white shirt as best he could. Richie never quite got the hang of planning out how long his one set of school clothes took to dry in the open air. In the morning, waiting for the uniform to lose its dampness, Richie, as often as not, wandered into class late. Not that he was in a real hurry anyway.
The 11-year-old's routine tardiness branded him with the teachers.
Richie generally began the day with a detention slip, and it went downhill from there.
Not surprisingly, Richie preferred to spend his time with his father, the person he often identified as his best friend, rather than at school. He described his dad as "funny and nice."
His father, Lennie, did the sort of things that little boys love.
"One time he fixed up an abandoned apartment in back of where we lived into a clubhouse," said Richie. "Another time we played football in the rain and mud for four hours."
Together the father and son roamed the Valley searching for bicycles to steal. Together they modified the bikes. Together they sold the wheels for quick cash.
A life of petty crime and truancy did not greatly trouble Richie. He knew the score. You had to eat.
Richie's only complaint with these living arrangements dealt with his parents' tendency to hock everything in their apartment. When three rooms of furniture were donated to the family, they sold it off, piece by piece. When Richie was given an electronic Gameboy, it quickly disappeared. The headphones he wore jogging, his other school clothes, his basketball-card collection, his running shoes, his boom box--all those gifts and presents given to him by well-intentioned people--all were gone.
"They sold everything. They sold my clothes, toothpaste, whatever," says Richie. "They had to have that crack."
Most of Richie's possessions had flowed from Esther Gould's horn of plenty. A highly educated business consultant, Esther, 55, might be considered a destructive do-gooder or an angel of mercy, depending upon your perspective. Starting in 1994, she mentored Richie's oldest sister, Helen, as part of a corporate program to involve Valley leaders with "at risk" kids.
Back then, Esther's commitment was haphazard; she did not know that good deeds are not meant to be so thoughtless, or cost-free.
"I thought I'd probably take Helen out to lunch a few times and then buy her a graduation gift, and that would about be the end of it," said Esther.
Esther never really connected with Helen. In fact, the girl went from at-risk to in-deep-trouble. Esther did develop a bond with Helen's younger brother, Richie. But as that bond deepened, his family lost whatever tenuous grasp it had on the world; eventually, all six Blandons spun through horrific events of death, separation and depravity.
Simultaneously, Esther's own family imploded: Her daughters, and even her new husband, responded to the woman's charitable instincts in hostile ways that challenged the fabric of her beliefs and closest relationships.
Appalled by the upheaval she had unleashed, Esther often felt overwhelmed; sometimes she even blamed herself for the final destruction of Richie's family.
Today, three full years after Esther Gould first met the Blandons, Richie and Esther are still together--welded more permanently, perhaps, than either could have imagined, or even wished, in the beginning. During these past years, Richie's life has changed almost miraculously for the better.
When you change one person's life, however, you also shift the lives of everyone in the circle, in ways that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes tragic, but in all ways profound. Esther Gould has paid the price of her commitment to the poor we are constantly told we should reach out to help. And so has everyone around her.
A new mood swept the country in 1994. A Republican Congress demoted Uncle Sam, replaced federal philanthropy with a call for personal charity and pocketed the $55 billion difference. A Democratic president agreed, and everyone called it welfare reform.
Whether you agree with Newt Gingrich's Contract With America, or Hillary Clinton's insistence that It Takes a Village, both sides of the political aisle instruct us that as the century begins to turn, individual citizens must weave the safety net, not government bureaucrats.
At the behest of the White House, the Urban Institute examined welfare-reform legislation; the think tank predicted that 1.1 million children will be thrust into poverty under the new guidelines.
No one can calculate with certainty the enormous impact of such a drastic policy shift upon the poor and those who volunteer to take up the welfare slack. The estimates are a guess.
Everyone is whistling a brave new tune.
But you must ask the Blandons, the Goulds and the people close to them about the piper's fee.
Life at Home
Richie Blandon learned about drug addiction at home.
"The cops came to our house a lot. They raided us four times. I let them in. My mom would flush stuff down the toilet. At the time, she was buying 8-balls [roughly an eighth of an ounce, or $130 worth, of cocaine]."
Richie's wasn't the only family he knew with drug problems. He'd seen three neighbors die. One lady was so addicted to crack that she hocked her oxygen tank. He remembered that real clear. When she overdosed, she left behind a child younger than Richie.
Richie can also describe in detail how you test the purity of crack and list the other drugs his parents favored.
But even though he was surrounded by the chaos of crack addiction, Richie's most vivid memory was peaceful. He remembered that when his parents smoked rock cocaine, there was a momentary lull.
"My dad got real calm. Later, he'd go to sleep and then wake up and want to eat. My mom would talk more than usual, her eyes would roll and she'd be, like, lightheaded. She did not get mean. She was actually nicer. When she wasn't on it, she'd be mean until she got it. People would give it to her, just to calm her down."
But even inside the tranquil stupor of crack, the potential for terror lurked.
"One time my mother almost died," said Richie. "She took a really deep hit and slowly began shrinking into [the floor like] a pancake. She passed out for a long time. I put a paper bag over her face and pushed it back and forth, trying to get some air into her. I poured warm water with salt down her mouth. I don't exactly know why. It's just what I'd been told you do. When she tasted that, it kind of brought her around."
When she wasn't high, Richie's mom, Barbara Blandon, could shame a shrew.
"She'd always yell at us because us kids complained we were hungry. She'd send us to the Circle K to buy Ramen noodles, which are like, what, 25 cents?"
Though there was seldom enough to eat, and his parents were always looking for that next hit on the pipe, Richie preferred life at the apartment with his two sisters and brother over school.
Like a pintsize contestant on Jeopardy! whose category is "SCHOOLS," Richie can rattle off the names of the learning institutions he's attended in his short life: Garfield, Shaw, three schools in Avondale, Emerson, Edison, Phoenix Prep Academy, Phoenix Welcome Center, Pappas, Clarendon, J.J. Elementary, another at 15th Avenue, Monroe and Intelli School. A white boy surrounded in inner-city schools by blacks and Mexicans, Richie listened to rap music and tried to fit in. And flailed.
Fistfights punctuated his smart-mouth bragging. His hoodlum bravado merely hid the fear.
Esther Gould first took the Blandon family under her wing in January 1994, after meeting 14-year-old Helen Blandon as part of a mentoring project sponsored by the Phoenix Community Alliance. Eleven months later, Richie wrote to Esther:
"Dear Esther . . . I am having big problems today. The boys who jumped me on the 14th of November are back in my face today telling me that they are going to jump me agan [sic] but they did not say wen [sic] so I am keeping my eyes open to wach [sic] out for myself. Because I am very skaird [sic], and don't know wat [sic] I am going to do . . . I am making shure [sic] that I stay by the grownups at all times so nothing will hapen [sic] at all to me. But they can jump me on the bus so I have been walking for about a week."
Though she meant well, Esther was helpless. She had no experience with either violence or drug addiction, the bookends of Richie's life. Left to his own devices, Richie responded to the danger in his life by acting wild.
He climbed up on roofs and dropped cinder blocks just to watch the destruction. From the I-10 overpass at 16th Street, he launched rocks onto cars--until a trucker got out of his cab with a gun and chased Richie and his buddies for blocks.
"We were so freaked out," said Richie.
Naturally, the kid groomed himself for the protection and family of a gang.
"I used to be really crazy and go looking for trouble. That's the kind of people the gangs want. They knew I was the kind of person who would get into trouble and do stupid stuff."
Instead of fantasizing about playing for the Phoenix Suns or the Los Angeles Lakers like a normal 11-year-old, Richie talked about the gangs he might join at his school, the downtown Phoenix Academy, which despite its fancy name is nothing more than a public school on the wrong side of town.
"There was the Ninth Street gang, VHHB [Vatio Hispanic Home Boys], East Coast Crips, West Coast Crips, Doble, 21st Street, 24th Street, West Side City, Duppa Villa and WBP [Wet Back Power]. I guess I was closest to the guys in West Side City."
When Esther defended Richie to school officials and demanded they help him, she heard, Forget it lady. He's no innocent Urkel. Richie sniffs out trouble even when he's got a head cold.
Before Richie could convince a gang that he was worthy of being jumped in, his life and his family slammed into a tree.
Richie's best friend--his father--hanged himself.
And the suicide became connected in everyone's mind--including her own--to Esther. It came after Richie's mother, Barbara, had started working at a tony Valley spa as a cleaning lady. Barbara had gotten the job because Esther leaned on a friend, the gym's owner.
Returning home from work one day, Barbara erupted. Her husband, Lennie, had sold the videocassette player for crack. Though Barbara still smoked rock, she had it in her head that the VCR was off limits. She rented movies and used the VCR to baby-sit her youngest children, 7-year-old John and 8-year-old Tabatha.
Barbara threw Lennie out of the house.
Richie tried to console his dad, a man given to depression. When the sun went down, however, Barbara screamed at Richie to come inside. Lennie brooded in the dark.
That night, July 14, 1994, Lennie fashioned a noose out of rope, slipped the line over his neck and hanged himself from a railing on the balcony just outside Barbara's front door.
Neighbors found his corpse and cut it down.
"I saw him lying on the floor of the porch," said Richie. "It was pretty awful. My brother and sisters knew what had happened and couldn't do anything more about it than I could."
The suicide devastated Barbara.
She quit the job Esther had gotten her. She moved out of an apartment Esther had found her in a nice part of town and back into her old neighborhood in downtown Phoenix. She gave up on the dream of a better life that Esther had tried to create for her.
Lennie's parents gave her a couple of thousand dollars to bury their son properly; she smoked the money, binging on crack, and requested the county cremate Lennie as a pauper.
After the funeral money ran out, Barbara turned to prostitution to support her habit.
Hollywood call girls might cater to lonely executives, but Barbara turned tricks on skid row. Every time she climbed into the front seat of a john's car, she took her life and a stranger's sex organs into her hands. The Blandon kids got used to seeing their mother return home beaten up.
Barbara and the children moved frequently. Eviction threats hounded them; she'd pack up their possessions in a shopping cart, and then it was down the sidewalk, looking for the next nearby flop.
Richie worried about his brother and sisters as his family disintegrated. Guilt overwhelmed him because he felt responsible for his dad's death. Why hadn't he thought of something to say on the one night his best friend needed him?
Richie believed it was up to him to save what was left of his family.
Noticing a construction crew repairing a run-down apartment complex near Second Avenue and Fillmore, the boy asked for a job. The foreman, who protected himself from the neighbors with a pistol on his hip, felt sorry for this child who wanted to put food on the family table. He paid Richie to do odd jobs, asking only that the breadwinner stay in grade school.
When Richie met the California lawyer who owned the building, the kid stepped right up and asked if his family could have one of the freshly patched apartments. Touched by the plea, the landlord let Barbara and her kids move in without paying rent.
Richie put a roof over his family's head, and then he reached out to Esther. His sister Helen had dropped out of high school, pregnant and unmoved by Esther's naive gestures at assistance.
But Richie had a different attitude.
"I thought Esther was cool for trying to help my sister," said Richie. "So I went to Esther and asked if she could help me."
Esther promised to stick by Richie, a compassionate pledge that quickly convulsed Gould's own family.
But no one saw the storm coming.
In the beginning, there was only a simple letter from Richie to Esther, addressed: "To My Favrit [sic] Mentor."
"I remember when I was three years old, and it was my birthday, [sic] so well because it was so great," wrote the man of the house. "[Richie's aunt] went to the car and got me a present. She said open your eyes, so I did. It was a brand new Huffy bike . . ."
From this innocent childhood, Richie went on to describe in the letter how his family moved from housing projects to slums, and how one school followed another.
". . . [Esther] picked up on me because she saw that I was doing good in school . . ."
Although he spilled out his life story in the letter, Richie never once mentioned crack or his father's suicide. And the fact is, he was not doing well in school.
The omission and the exaggeration are less important than the boy's vision: Richie Blandon had taken the first crucial step to reinventing himself.
Esther Gould grew up in a family that loved her.
She was the sort of child who needed little discipline. In fact, the one time that her father slapped her, the entire family ended up in tears.
"I was very close to my parents, who valued me highly, even though I was a girl. I was always assured that I was special," said Esther.
Esther learned from her dad that she could do anything. Nothing was impossible.
The lesson was a two-edged sword.
Esther tackled life with enthusiasm. While there are entire sections in bookstores aimed at bolstering those who are merely considering a job change, Esther bravely, and successfully, switched careers three times. But with that same gung-ho attitude came hubris. Esther saw no reason she shouldn't overcome complex social problems like drug addiction and a poverty cycle that spanned generations as easily as she changed careers.
Growing up, Esther had also learned a simpler lesson at home: the importance of children.
"I have always tried to be the kind of parent my parents were," said Esther.
She succeeded. Esther made her two daughters, Carol and Sarah, the cornerstone of her life.
As Esther networked and schmoozed her way through the corporate world, her daughters scampered alongside. Everyone learned that when Esther went out to dinner, her daughters accompanied her. The three of them were like sisters; no secrets allowed.
Today, both daughters are well-educated young professionals.
"I speak to each one of them every day," said Esther. "Plus, we are always sending e-mail to each other."
Esther's parents would have been proud.
Esther's dad, an entertainment lawyer, had represented a host of international stars, including Billie Daniels, Lionel Hampton and Eddie Fisher. Esther baby-sat Tony Bennett's kids. Pearl Bailey sang at her Sweet 16 birthday party.
And though he was never a bleeding heart, her father pushed progressive ideas: He championed unions, demanded royalties for black performers and insisted upon integrated accommodations for his stars. Through her father's example, Esther grew up believing in the importance of doing civic good.
Her mother also instilled Esther with values. But they were of a different sort.
The day-to-day tedium of ordinary life bored Esther's mother. So she ignored it. She stayed in bed all day, pleading headaches. At night, the family's black maid would help Esther's mother into her furs, and she would sweep dramatically into nightclubs with her husband, the entertainment lawyer.
Esther does not handle day-to-day routine any better than her mother.
"Order drives me crazy," said Esther. "I make my own disorder. Order bores me."
As an adult, Esther was impulsive in her quest for intellectual and emotional stimulation. She leapt, then looked to see where she'd landed. Husbands, for instance, came in and out of her life like the dry cleaning.
Such peripatetic life choices frighten most people, but Esther was only following her father's advice.
"You have to be a little different. Don't try to be like everyone else. That's what my father told me," said Esther.
Throughout her life, Esther heeded her father's words and clung fiercely to the unconventional in the highly structured worlds of academia, the Chamber of Commerce and parenting.
She combined a good, brave heart and a willingness to face any challenge with a sometimes flaky, superficial focus; she was easily distracted by the next of life's shimmering attractions.
She resided in one of Arizona's earliest geodesic domes. She married five men. She abandoned high-profile careers. Esther had hacked her own trail out of the bush.
Her meandering footpath began back East. Following an extensive education at Cornell, Columbia and Syracuse, and the requisite Ph.D., Esther shed her second husband after moving to her new home in Arizona in 1968. The relocation was not an ideal fit.
She lectured at Phoenix College as a professor of literature. Soon, the department chairman, John Wesley, found himself defending his newest teacher. A fellow traveler in the sexual and political upheaval of the '60s, Esther now found herself in a conservative backwater.
A liberal New York Jew who instinctively spoke her mind did not pass as the girl next door--at least, not in Arizona.
"I ended up as the faculty adviser to SDS as it tried to organize on campus," said Esther. "That was one problem. The day Eisenhower died there was an assembly at Phoenix College. Everyone stood for a silent prayer. I sat down. John Wesley had to give a sworn statement afterwards that I wasn't some kind of Communist. The rumor was that I had refused to stand for the national anthem. It wasn't that; I just don't pray.
"Then I started a film festival on campus. We showed the Arizona premiere of Norman Mailer's movie Beyond the Law. When the first guy said 'fuck' in the movie, every dean in the school got up and left: the Dean of Instruction, the Dean of Students and the Dean of the College."
John Wesley spent so much time defending Esther that he fell in love with her. And while she has remained on friendly terms with all of her husbands, her marriage to John, though not permanent, was special.
He fathered Carol and Sarah and still shares responsibility for the daughters as well as an abiding friendship with Esther.
All that was nearly 30 years ago. Despite the clamor at the time, Esther knows she only dabbled in politics.
"I was so random," she said.
In fact, by the time she left the community college district in 1980 to open her own business, dissident faculty members identified Esther not as a rebel, but as an administration ally.
If her political efforts during her early days in Arizona were more hopscotch than clenched fist, Esther truly knew the language of protest. Today, as Esther describes her involvement with Richie, her policy-coated words ring of distant '60s rhetoric.
She has started a memoir that she continues to work upon. The pages are informed with a high moral tone that might have pleased her father, the progressive New York lawyer. She writes logically, as if emotions would betray her.
"We have a big problem with our children, especially our poor children . . . they are violent, ignorant, unemployable and dangerous, roaming through our cities in gangs, tagging our property and threatening our citizens with automatic rifles. If you listen to their music, you will hear that they are interested only in crime, drugs and sex . . . these kids will never be employable as adults. And yet, they will soon be denied welfare. How will they live? It's simple: They'll steal from us."
She has titled her memoir Each One, Reach One.
However accurate Esther may believe her theories are, they ignore the core truth about her involvement with Richie Blandon: Richie came into her life when she was vulnerable. Esther had just suffered two losses.
In 1992, her fourth husband left Esther for a man.
She faced this crisis calmly, addressing with candor the awkward questions of her friends. Still, it was a very public separation for a very public couple, and it took its toll.
More wrenching yet, both daughters left home.
As Esther's old nest broke apart, she instinctively gathered the twigs and strings of her next shelter. She started mentoring Richie's older sister in the first month of 1994. As she began the long initiation into the despair and drug addiction in the Blandon household, Esther, once again, fell in love, this time with Dr. Josh Goldstein.
Like Esther, Goldstein, now 62, did not exactly blend into the scenery.
At the Heart Ball, the Valley's glossiest fund raiser, Esther and Josh sat at a table with other doctors. Though they had dated for some time, the charity soiree was a defining moment in their courtship. As the doctors discussed the ramifications of managed care upon their various practices, Goldstein insisted that everyone should have access to medical care. It was a disgrace to their oath to try to deny care to indigents or immigrants in order to make more money. Slapped with Goldstein's white Hippocratic glove, the other doctors left the table. Esther looked over at Josh with fresh interest.
Esther found Josh to be very smart and funny, in a dry-as-a-martini sort of way. They both played tennis and ran and were obsessed with film. Their conversations deepened over time in the Valley's best restaurants. Neither had time to cook.
"He's also great in bed," said Esther matter-of-factly.
When Dr. Goldstein was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he did not want to face the operation and the recovery alone. He asked Esther to marry him. She agreed, and they tied the knot on his 60th birthday, April 1, 1994.
After the ceremony, Esther's ex-husband and his gay lover hosted a large reception for the newlyweds. Former wives and husbands on both sides attended the celebration.
Esther had pulled together the strands for a new phase of life. She believed she could nurture her new husband, save the Blandons and continue to hold her daughters close to her. And why not?
Esther had always clutched at her former husbands and lovers like a teenager who compulsively fingers all of the charms on her bracelet. She did not understand that this time her life had reached critical mass.
The story of a little boy confronted by devastating problems he did not create, and a woman who helped him in her own time of need, is hardly unique. It is only one small scene in the vast welfare drama unfolding across the American stage.
The tale is different in the particulars; but everyone caught up in foster care has his or her own story.
Doctor Josh Goldstein sneered through his recollection of early meetings with Richie's crack-addict mother, Barbara Blandon, during an interview last summer.
"I met her and disliked her at once," said Goldstein. "She is in arrested development. She is dumber, less mature, more demanding than the youngest of her children, and she is lazy. Richie understands his mother's behavior is a form of insanity. I doubt he knew there were other ways to live. His mother is hateful. I really detested her. Everything out of her mouth is either a lie or a complaint. I used to say to Esther, 'Don't you understand? She's selling everything for drugs.'"
Dr. Goldstein expressed these sentiments in the same conversation in which he lectured about the needs of the poor.
"If we don't help children on the street, if we let conservatives in Orange County say that children of illegal aliens cannot be educated, cannot be treated medically . . . well. I am not willing to take people off of welfare or food stamps after five years," said Goldstein. "Adults will survive. It's the children that will suffer."
For all his stated social conscience, there was palpable antipathy when Dr. Goldstein first discussed Richie.
"I'm not sure Richie will ever amount to very much," appraised Dr. Goldstein as the interview began. "I don't see the spark of intelligence, spontaneity or creativity.
"I use the term 'pussy' with him. In my generation, it meant you were a wimp, acting like a little girl. I have four older sisters. They were pleasers, goody-goody two shoes. Richie will acquiesce to be more pleasing in the eye of the beholder. I tell him, 'Don't be a pussy. Don't say you want a shirt if you don't.'
"I tell him he must act like a man."
It would have been easy to write off Dr. Goldstein as a pedantic hypocrite, someone posing as Tom Dooley but actually contemptuous of those who suffer. Easy, but wrong. In the end, no one overcame darker impulses to provide Richie with help than Dr. Goldstein.
With cancer shadowing his remaining years, Dr. Goldstein's early testiness was perhaps understandable. And when confronted then, the doctor said he felt no resentment at the intrusion of Richie into his life. But his transparent denial reeked of petulance.
When the issue of foster care became paramount, he agreed to the arrangement so long as it did not require any extra work of him--as if any child, let alone Richie, might ever be an entirely carefree prospect.
"Esther does not shop, cook, clean or do laundry. And I was right in that it is a lot of extra work for me," he said.
Of course housework bored Esther. But such a cranky complaint from her husband masked the larger truth: Dr. Goldstein, a man Esther characterizes as obsessed with order, saw that with the entry of Richie, his world was now spinning wildly.
"He had loss-of-control nightmares," said Esther. "He's waking up in the middle of the night, horrified that he's flunking out of med school."
Dr. Goldstein's nightmares were the result of dread layered upon dread. Barbara's drug addiction, for example, dredged up some of the man's most painful memories.
Years earlier, Dr. Goldstein paid a ransom to kidnapers who'd abducted his youngest son, a troubled boy whose involvement with marijuana peddlers led to the hostage emergency.
In 1978, drug dealers snatched his boy and held him for 24 hours.
"I paid them all the money I could get my hands on quickly," said Dr. Goldstein. "It was $25,000."
No man forgets waiting for his child's safe return, and Dr. Goldstein had no interest in allowing the tentacles of drug addiction into his life again.
And so when Esther first began bringing Richie into her new home with Josh, the boy's street musk and his droopy gang clothes provoked the doctor.
"For the longest time," recalled Esther, "my husband said only three things to Richie: 'Did you take out the trash? Have you taken a bath? Pull up your pants.'"
The doctor claimed that the severe tone of his relationship with Richie was not a source of stress between him and Esther.
Which was not accurate.
She cringed every time Dr. Goldstein berated Richie. And she was furious when she discovered that her husband was checking the boy's toilet to see if Richie flushed.
"I acted as a mediator between the two of them," said Esther. "It was terrible."
Esther's judgment was tempered by circumstances. She knew that her husband not only had medical problems but that he also was concerned about finances.
Recent insurance trends--particularly, the spread of Health Maintenance Organizations--threatened his income. Those big, managed-care systems had little use for his kind of sole practitioner. And one of her husband's former partners had gone bankrupt, leaving Dr. Goldstein the sole guarantor on a significant loan.
"He doesn't understand how to let go and let the universe bring something to you," worried Esther. "Richie was brought to us for a reason. He signifies the future. It is hopeful."
The future beckoned to Esther, but Josh, understandably, was planning for his death.
"When I was born in 1934, my father purchased a very good bottle of Pinch. I intend to drink that bottle of Scotch and take 100 Ativan when the time comes. I am not going to turn to crap."
While she viewed the external threats to her husband's mental health clearly enough, Esther never once mentioned her own role in the man's trepidation.
As if the malignancy and its prospect of a debilitating death were not enough, Goldstein endured the side effects of medical treatment. With prostate cancer, men face the possibility, even the probability, of impotence, depending upon how invasive the surgery on and the treatment of that gland are.
Dr. Goldstein had a prosthetic device implanted to sustain his erections.
During this soul-numbing phase of his life, Dr. Goldstein asked Esther for her hand in marriage. They were a mature couple who shared similar political interests and held a mutual respect for each other's wildly divergent personalities; but they were also making a decision based upon his overwhelming needs. Instead of comforting him, and only him, through this desolate period, Esther introduced a new crisis into his life--Richie. As doctor Goldstein confronted disturbing questions about his own virility, his wife brought a 14-year-old man-child into their home.
While Esther and the doctor jostled each other in this new and delicate marriage, the male-female tension crackled, the taut cable between husband and wife hummed. Said Dr. Goldstein wistfully, "Richie saw Esther as saving his life. He saw Esther as Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Nefertiti."
As doctor Goldstein wrestled with Richie's visits during the periods of their temporary custody of the child, his wife plunged ahead. Without talking to her husband, Esther set them on the formal path of becoming foster parents. The first step required the two adults to take extensive parenting classes from the state.
Cancer, drug-addiction nightmares, financial reversals, crucial expectations left unfulfilled, the most fundamental fears of manhood and a wife whose inner demons drove her to ignore the common decency of consultation . . . stronger men short-circuit under lesser loads. Dr. Goldstein rebelled and refused to attend the lengthy classes the state demanded for all prospective foster parents.
If Dr. Goldstein's early antipathy to Richie pushed him into passive withdrawal, Esther's daughters lashed out directly and viciously at the intrusion of the young boy and his family into their mother's life.
"My children are pissed," said Esther. "They are jealous. They think it is wrong to have Richie in our home."
The young women, Carol, 25, and Sarah, 23, had not minced words.
"They feel free to call her a 'fucking asshole,'" Dr. Goldstein observed, "because she raised them as her friends instead of as her children. If my kids talked to me like that, I would collapse in shock."
In fact, Esther had never demanded that her daughters treat her with discretion, or parental respect. They were pals.
And so when Richie was introduced into the family, he wasn't merely an example of their mother getting on with her life, now that the daughters had moved out. Richie meant that Carol and Sarah's closest friend had dropped them for the new kid in the neighborhood.
"He is an infringement on my relationship with my mother," said Sarah.
The older daughter, already burdened with law-school debts and no job in sight, voiced practical concerns.
"It was difficult to see my mother spending money on a third child when I felt I needed her most," said Carol.
And both daughters were appalled by Richie's family. When they learned that Richie's sister had named her out-of-wedlock baby Mary Jane, Sarah sniped to Carol, "How nice. She named the baby after one of her family's favorite drugs."
Carol replied that the baby's full name might as well be Goldstein, because that's who was going to end up supporting the child.
"I was so hurt that my kids could behave like that," said Esther with a sigh.
Esther, who thought no one could deny comfort to a child in obvious pain, found her entire family united in revulsion.
And like the initial acidic response from her new husband, her daughters' vituperative reaction sprung from old wounds. The girls were nothing so simple as the snooty stepsisters in Cinderella.
Ever since Esther left the security of the college teaching ranks for the far riskier private enterprise sector in 1980, her small consulting firm had teetered on the financial edge. In addition to this very real fiscal pressure, both daughters grew up in a fishbowl. They had a well-known mother whose lifestyle choices were as disruptive as they were daring.
Throughout their lives, the demands Esther's life placed upon her daughters kept ratcheting tighter.
In stable times, Esther made as much as $60,000 a year, a solid middle-class income. But times were not always stable. And other than the specter of poor health, Esther's only admitted terror was poverty.
So financial instability did more than threaten Esther's bottom line; it spooked her heart. Both daughters grew up with Esther's ghosts--and terrors more real: From 1991 to 1993, Carol and Sarah watched helplessly as their mother faced bankruptcy.
Caught in the tail end of Arizona's real estate collapse, Esther returned from a holiday to learn that the IRS intended to put a $37,000 lien on her business. Without her knowledge, Esther's comptroller had neglected to stay current on payroll taxes; Esther sold her Mercedes, leased a Honda and paid off the government. She then faced a long line of creditors, but without a fancy car to sell off.
"She flew out to see me one weekend when I was in law school," remembered Carol. "I was having my own problems in class, but here Mom's greatest fear had come to pass. To set an example for me, she decided that weekend to try to work it all out and avoid bankruptcy.
"So, yes, money is an enormous issue. She hasn't provided properly for herself, or me," said Carol, who faces a $60,000 law-school debt. "I know the kind of expenses a young boy can rack up. She and Josh are confronting an enormous expense. At their age, they are looking at bikes, shoes, cars, college."
Esther does not argue the point.
"The financial reality is that my husband cannot afford to retire, and neither can I."
Esther's business partner at the time she faced down bankruptcy was her fourth husband, Carlos.
A warm, handsome fellow, Carlos was a gay aerobics instructor when Esther met him. As Esther brought him into her girls' lives, he encapsulated all of the reckless decision-making the daughters felt they'd already endured.
Esther, on the other hand, thought the marriage would set an example--that you can find happiness through unconventional choices--for her daughters.
When she and Carlos married, Esther was blithely at peace with Carlos' assertion that he wanted to live as a heterosexual and be the stepfather of her daughters, then in junior high. It would be an adventure.
The girls were not nearly so comfortable.
"Carlos was difficult," said Carol. "It wasn't just that he had been gay. He was 20 years younger than my mother. I constantly got, 'Is he your brother? Is he your boyfriend?'
"As a child, I wanted her attention. Now she had Carlos."
Carol boycotted the wedding.
Poor Richie was the caboose at the tail end of Esther's long and vivid train of life.
"We felt like she'd dragged us through all of her relationships," said Sarah. "Richie was just one more person she wanted us to meet and accept."
The daughters were exhausted.
"She'd never introduced another child into the equation," said Carol. "We didn't want to share our mother's attention. I think it would be difficult for anyone to wake up and hear their mother being called 'Mom' by someone who was not your biological sister or brother."
The girls have a crisp recollection of the first time they met Richie.
"We drove up to their apartment and all these kids came piling out," said Carol. "The visit was more like what people do when they volunteer their time at the local relief shelter. There were all these wild, unruly children begging my mother for money. Barbara, their mom, looked overwhelmed. But at least we were able to drive away. My mother was a supplier, and they had no qualms about asking for gifts and money. They saw her as Santa Claus."
At the end of August 1995, Carol called her mother.
Her sister Sarah, at home temporarily, answered the ringing phone.
"Hi, is Mom up?" Carol wanted to know. "I'm in the hospital, and they tell me I might have a brain tumor."
Sarah and Esther left Phoenix on the first plane outbound to Los Angeles.
Eventually, tests would show that a deformed mass of blood vessels, an arteriovenous malformation, had been growing inside Carol's head since birth. The mass had now gotten large enough to announce its presence.
"I was cooking corn in my apartment, when I just fell to the floor," recalled Carol. "I bit through my tongue."
The medical emergency concentrated all that was good and bad among these three powerful women, like a rich stock reduced to its essential flavors. And hapless Richie found himself thrown into the pot.
The hospitalization occurred at an awkward period. Though both daughters had left the state for college, neither had actually established their own careers or lives. Under normal circumstances, they treated each other like sisters; they were free to yell, scream and curse at each other. But this wasn't normal. Sarah, and especially Carol, needed their mother.
Esther turned in a heroic effort to get hospital care for Carol--but then deserted her daughter's bedside before the young woman went into surgery. Esther cannot even remember, now, why she left.
Upon arrival in California, though, Esther was a whirlwind. She quickly transferred her daughter out of the local hospital to the better UCLA medical center. But UCLA appeared swamped. No tests had been done. It was impossible to get an MRI scheduled.
So Esther contacted the assistant to the Chief of Neurosurgery. The tests were performed. Then, the family could not get hold of the test results.
"Sarah and I prowled the offices of the radiologists. I kept introducing myself to nurses as Dr. Gould and asking for Carol's results, but all the doctors had gone home for the day," Esther said.
Esther got back on the phone to the assistant to the Chief of Neurosurgery and once again spurred the staff into action.
"My mother was on the front lines," said Carol. "She walked up and down the corridor. She basically banged on doors.
"I didn't have, by the doctors' standards, a serious condition. They had people in comas, people who would never recover. I was completely operable. I was not their first concern."
But she was Esther's only concern.
"We were scheduled to have a resident do the surgery and that just scared the hell out of me," said Esther.
So Esther accosted the Chief of Neurosurgery as the man made his rounds. She introduced herself, complimented the diligence of the doctor's assistant and asked that he personally perform the operation on her oldest daughter.
"I wanted him to like me," said Esther. "I knew what I was doing. He was a short Jewish guy; I figured I had a chance.
"Oh, God, it was awful. I felt I had to manage it. Carol's father got lost driving to Los Angeles. Then he couldn't find the hospital. He was a wreck.
"You have to power your way through a hospital. You cannot wait. It's more than just being assertive."
No detail was too small. Was there any space left near Carol's bed for another vase of flowers?
But once she believed everything was under control, Esther returned to Phoenix on business. Incredibly, Esther was not at the hospital when Carol went into surgery. Just one year later, she cannot even recall the nature of the business that called her from her daughter's bedside.
"I don't remember," says Esther today. "It might have been a speech. I don't know."
Sarah said her mother was a force for change at UCLA but she, and Carol's biological father, John Wesley, provided her sister's emotional support.
Sarah walked Carol into surgery.
"It was terrifying," said Sarah. "She was so strong, just like Mom."
Esther tried to put her absence into perspective.
"I'm experienced with surgery," said Esther. "There is nothing you can do. The worst place you can be is in the waiting room with everyone else worrying together.
"I should have been there to walk her into surgery. I feel bad about that. But Sarah was there to do that.
"The truth is I could stop myself from going to pieces by taking care of another aspect of my life. It was a mental-health thing for me."
Esther returned before Carol regained consciousness and then departed again to Arizona when her daughter was released.
"She had to rush home as soon as I was out of the hospital and well. In that sense, she was not a typical homemaker mom nurturing me through a long convalescence," Carol said.
Both daughters agreed at the time that Esther's departure during surgery was an issue.
One year later, however, the young women believe that their mother's absence was understandable and that people who have a problem with Esther's behavior simply do not understand the complexity of the relationship between mother and daughters. They both relate to the pressures on career women in general, and to their mother in particular.
"Sure, there are times when I wish Mom would fix a home-cooked meal instead of taking us out to Houston's," said Carol. "But that's not my mom."
Esther was unusual--even unfeeling--in another sense.
When Esther returned to Los Angeles to check up on her recovering daughter, she unthinkingly brought Richie along, despite Carol's resentment of the boy. Carol admitted that she was "shocked and surprised" by the tagalong.
Esther said Richie had called her and asked if she could take him in because his mother, Barbara, was throwing all the kids out of the apartment.
"I didn't know what else to do," said Esther.
Carol and Sarah insist that Esther's absence during the operation itself, and Richie's unwanted presence later, had nothing to do with the emotional opera that played out at that first Thanksgiving, when Richie joined the Goulds and the Goldsteins at their table of plenty.
By Thanksgiving Day 1995, just three months after Carol's dramatic operation, the hair on the small patch of scalp over Carol's entry wound had barely grown back.
The First Thanksgiving
Though Richie was still living at home with his family, his situation was tenuous. When Esther visited his apartment on Thanksgiving Day, Barbara told her that someone had stolen the family's turkey.
So Esther brought Richie home with her.
Both daughters had flown into Phoenix and were already at Dr. Goldstein's house for dinner. All three of the doctor's children as well as the wives and grandchildren were there.
All of these strangers and in-laws--and Richie, too--put Esther's daughters on extreme edge.
"Which is totally how my mother works," said Sarah. "'I have no bias, let's blend everything,' that's Esther. But it isn't comfortable because we aren't all so open-minded."
Carol was just as chagrined. And her focus was the little boy who'd come between her and her mother.
"None of us had anything in common with Richie," said Carol. "His knowledge base was how to make crack and live on the street."
Richie knew that something was wrong.
Carol and Sarah argued with their mother and he could almost taste that he was the problem.
"Esther invited me to the movies," said Richie. "Then Esther told me her daughters wanted to go to the movies with just her, not me. They were in a room like 20 minutes talking about it."
Sarah found Richie's demeanor during the Thanksgiving dinner impenetrable.
"I didn't think he understood, or appreciated, what my mother was doing for him," said Sarah. "I couldn't say he was in awe of the strange situation, because I never saw an expression on his face. He was quiet and hardened, totally non-emotive."
For herself, Sarah was completely staggered by the crowd at her mother's turkey dinner.
"I just got drunk."
Richie told Esther that he could see that her daughters did not like him.
Now 13, he was still too young to drink his way out of the situation.
"'I tried not to eat too much, so they wouldn't hate me,' was what he told me," said a devastated Esther.
Her daughters informed Esther they would not return for Christmas if Richie was in the house.
"I took little Richie to his family, so my kids' Christmas wasn't corrupted," said Esther. "I was miserable. I was so hurt at the way my daughters acted."
At Christmas she gave Richie a modern-day erector set he'd had his eye on.
"He gave me a unicorn. It was his mother's favorite thing," Esther said.
The Phone Call
In the first week of December 1995, Barbara called Esther.
Barbara's husband, Lennie, had been dead for 17 months. Helen had left home and was now living with her grandmother.
Barbara had hit bottom. Her new boyfriend, a pimp and a drug dealer, beat her senseless and then stole the government checks meant for her and her kids. That was the story. The rent was due.
Esther had heard about the boyfriend, Dion, from Barbara's children, whom he terrorized. The paramedics had rushed to Barbara's aid after one particularly vicious pounding.
"I will kill that black son of a bitch," Richie promised during one interview. "He was always hitting the little kids, not me. I wouldn't care how tall he is. He's so skinny. Just hit him in the back with a bar, and he'd fold in half."
Now Barbara expected Esther to do something--mainly, come up with the rent money. But Esther was no longer new to this game, and she knew that Barbara gave whatever cash she could muster to Dion. With her own pressing concerns for Christmas looming just a few short weeks away, Esther's patience wore thin.
She gave Barbara contacts and phone numbers at several emergency shelters. But Barbara did not pick up the phone. She did not want to end up in a battered women's shelter, away from Dion. Instead she sulked, complaining because no church had "adopted" her for Christmas, as had happened in past years.
After two years of work with the Blandons, Esther wondered what good she'd accomplished.
"You've heard the expression that it takes a village to raise a child? Well, an entire goddamned city of social workers reached out to Barbara, and nothing changed," said Esther.
The state's official guardian of the young, Child Protective Services (CPS), now was watching Barbara and her kids. An inspector showed up and told the mother there had better be food in the refrigerator.
"Barbara would buy food, cook it and not let the kids eat it," said Esther. "She'd put it in the refrigerator to look like leftovers in order to fool the social worker."
Shortly after the 1995 holidays, a friend at the downtown YMCA tipped Esther that Barbara was on the streets. Two of the kids had been dropped off at the grandmother's apartment, and Richie was camping out with his mother to protect her.
Richie spent time with Esther, on temporary passes signed by Barbara. When the young boy next joined his mentor, Esther discussed with him the possibility of calling CPS on his own mother.
Did he think it was a good idea, she asked.
A call to CPS could be a drastic tip in the balance of Richie's family life. The agency might sweep the children up and away from Barbara--perhaps permanently.
But little Richie agreed that things were so bad, calling CPS made sense. When Esther phoned the agency on January 2, 1996, the young boy sobbed throughout the call. She told the authorities she had Richie in custody.
Esther did not talk her decision over with her husband.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," said Esther.
But, obviously, with Richie sitting in their home, Esther and Josh had to deal with an escalated responsibility, unless they were prepared to dump the boy on CPS. That was unthinkable.
CPS snatched Barbara's other two minor children out of school and put them in a state institution, a holding pen. They would wait there until the state could match Richie's 7-year-old brother and his 10-year-old sister with foster parents. Richie stayed with Esther.
Consumed with fear that he'd never see his family again, Richie corkscrewed into a deep depression. For 10 days and 10 nights, he threw up everything he ate. When the vomiting subsided, he slept.
"This is worse than when my father died," he told Esther.
She tried to comfort the pitiful child.
"I told him that at least his brother and sister would have a safe environment, somewhere good to sleep and clean clothes. But he said, 'Esther, it's not the food and the clothes, it's the love.'"
A couple of days into the ordeal, Richie discovered where Dion and Barbara now crashed. He phoned the motel.
"Dion answered the phone," said Esther. "He told Richie his mother wasn't there, but Richie could hear her in the background screaming, 'Hang up the phone. Hang up the phone.'"
Esther saw for herself where the state placed Barbara's other two kids when she took Richie to visit them. It caused her to question the decision to phone CPS.
Community Justice for Children is a grand name for the staging depot where little Tabatha and John Blandon awaited their fate.
"It's like an armed camp," said Esther. "CPS worried about the kids' safety but no one cared whether or not they were happy, and, obviously, they weren't. If you ever go inside of this place, like I did, you'd wonder why you take kids away from drug addicts only to abandon them to this warehouse. It was dreadful. The guards were drunk, and the LPNs I saw were stupid." (The state has since severed its contract with Community Justice.)
On top of everything, Richie caught all the blame for the state's intervention in his family's life.
His brother and his sister, as well as his mother, blamed the boy for CPS' move. Richie now lived in a nice home, they noticed, while everyone else lived in hell.
Actually, Richie's own circumstances left him lukewarm.
He told Esther: "I don't mind living with you; it don't bother me."
His tepid response crushed Esther.
"He was so unhappy."
Who Are These People?
The agony of Richie and his family throbbed like a migraine inside Esther's head, and her own family's resistance demoralized the woman. Though she seldom expressed despair, her insides were a fog bank of misgivings. In the dreariest moments, she even accepted blame for the destruction of Richie's family.
"I just think I might have made things worse. There is a principle in physics: When you observe something, you change it.
"I think I had a role in the family's disintegration. By getting Barbara a job, I threw them over the edge. Lennie killed himself."
Esther Gould had come to realize that she had been guilty of an arrogance and ignorance usually found only in green, reservation missionaries.
"At the time, if you can believe it, I thought, 'Oh, good. He's out of the way. Now she can work, learn computers, go to school and get a job at Salt River Project.' I thought he was the only one on drugs.
"Barbara blames herself, but I had a hand in this. He was depressed that she was getting on with her life."
In reality, the afflictions that ate at the core of the Blandon family--the drug addiction, the violence, the poverty--were so intricate and interconnected, they simply did not yield to the slapdash, "Okay, I've got the list of goals written on my Daytimer" style that had been Esther's approach since her random days at Phoenix College.
"God, I was so naive," said Esther. "It was like I had a business plan for Barbara. In their old life, the family had each other. Now everyone has stress and loss. We think it's a better life. Do they? I stepped into their lives thinking I knew what was best for them. Now, I see Richie depressed, Helen sullen, Tabatha angry and John cut off.
"Maybe they were happier with the chaos they knew, rather than this alien tranquillity."
Before this crisis, Esther had admitted to only two fears: poor health and financial failure. Now, the sheer cost of little Richie's needs climbed dramatically, at the same time that a vivid personal tableau played out for Esther, reinforcing her fiscal paranoia.
She was forced to move her mother, who had Alzheimer's disease and was in a near-vegetative state, from Florida to Arizona, where Esther confined the elderly woman in a nursing home. Esther watched with horror as her parents' entire estate was wiped out by the expense of caring for her mother. Each time she visited her mother at Kivel nursing home, Esther was reminded how little she herself had put away for her own retirement.
She'd already faced bankruptcy. Was it possible, Esther worried, that she'd spend her old age like her own mother, penniless, because she had not saved enough?
So money was a factor when Esther decided to apply for state certification as a foster parent, instead of remaining a temporary, legal guardian. As a foster parent, she would qualify for $450 a month in state subsidies, as well as $87 a month from Social Security, targeted at care for Richie.
But becoming a foster parent took time; in the interim, the boy needed immediate medical attention. Esther lined Richie up with the professional help he'd never had: counselors, doctors, after-school tutors, a psychiatrist, a dentist and an ophthalmologist.
For the first time in his life, Richie had medication to combat the depression that coursed through the Blandon family.
Richie had never visited a dentist and needed braces, which the state paid for.
Eye exams showed that Richie had a degenerative vision condition. Because it had never been treated, he saw clearly with only one eye.
After the fourth pair of glasses were broken in one month during fights at the public school, Esther transferred Richie to a charter school that focused on computers.
Esther wondered about the depths of her own emotional resources as every facet of her new responsibilities crowded her.
The littlest things--hugs, for instance--caused concern.
"He doesn't hug me," worried Esther. "I don't hug him. I don't know how you necessarily physically treat a 13-year-old boy. I'm not sure if they have crushes on an older woman."
And she certainly did not want a social worker trying to sort out what was appropriate.
It seemed she could never let her guard down, that she always had to be vigilant. Word filtered back from Richie's old neighborhood that Barbara had found a job at the Phoenix Public Library. She intended to fight for custody of her children.
Esther found it all overwhelming.
And if the variety of Richie's physical ailments shocked Esther, what did she and her husband actually know about his emotional personality, about his predispositions, his genetics?
Esther and her husband's anxiety over Richie's ability to learn came to a head with the soccer test. All six of their natural children passed easily into America's most demanding universities. Every one of them was an overachiever.
Richie Blandon, on the other hand, flunked the test to become a school-yard soccer referee, ending any hope of a part-time job and flabbergasting Esther and Dr. Goldstein.
They knew Richie did poorly in class; in fact, he scored in the fourth percentile on the Iowa Basic Skills test, meaning that an astonishing 96 percent of schoolchildren in the country did better. They could write off the results to the failure of urban schools.
But how could any child flunk a simple Parks and Recreation department-style quiz?
They worried about what they saw in Richie.
"You have to break everything down for Richie," observed Esther. "He has no work ethic. You write it down, take it step by step. It's all a tabula rasa for him. No one has explained anything to Richie. And he lies too easily."
There were other, more troubling questions.
"Living well keeps people on course," said Dr. Goldstein. "But what if the path becomes bumpy? What will happen if Richie's life becomes bumpy? Will he return to a life of lying, cheating and stealing?"
Esther and her husband wondered if Richie might not regress as a teenager.
"We know that in the immediate family there is a history of drugs, clinical depression and crime," said Esther. "And the scary truth is, we really do not know very much at all about these people. Who are these people?"
The Apartment Complex
Marjorie Cunningham, the manager of an apartment complex in the shadow of City Hall that caters to people on fixed incomes, has helped Barbara Blandon's mother--who is known as Grandmother Annie--get a restraining order to keep her daughter out of the apartments. Annie has had a hip replacement and is afflicted with heart trouble.
"Barbara had no respect for her 82-year-old mother," said Marjorie. "She'd scream and yell at her mother to get money for her habit. You could depend upon when it was Social Security time of month, Barbara would show up."
Over time, the restraining order became a flexible arrangement, brokered by Marjorie. When Barbara was stable, the visitation rules stretched.
Having watched them for two years, nothing about the volatile Blandons surprised Marjorie.
"The kids ran wild," said Marjorie. "Little Richie was very lippy. But a lot of Richie's tough act protected him from getting hurt. He was a child of the streets. They all were. I saw a good kid in Richie. He was not stupid. Those kids want to succeed and hold their heads up.
"Their mother, Barbara? She will tell you today, it's everyone else's fault. She told me, 'These kids are in my way. I don't have a life.'
"Barbara was like a bitch who'd had a litter of pups and walked away. Those kids would have starved without their Grandmother Annie."
For the past couple of years, Annie's modest downtown apartment has sheltered each of Barbara's four kids, off and on. When Barbara's oldest daughter, Helen, left home, she moved in with Grandmother Annie. Today, a 6-month-old infant shares the space. Annie loves her grandchildren and her new great-grandchild, but Barbara mystifies, and sometimes angers, the old lady.
"I didn't even know she was on drugs," said Grandmother Annie. "Then one time, she slapped me. Then I knew. Barbara says none of us love her. Why, that's not true. Barbara just always wanted everything for herself. Everyone else came second. She wanted to be the big one of it."
Barbara certainly was not the center of attention growing up. After all, Annie had 13 kids to watch over.
Grandmother Annie ended up in Phoenix after a lifetime of following the crops with her husband, picking vegetables and fruits across the breadth of America. As of last spring, she knew the whereabouts of only two of her children: One son sat in prison, in Florence, and Barbara wandered the neighborhood.
Together, Marjorie and Grandmother Annie shielded Helen and her infant from Barbara, whose visits were--to put it mildly--unpredictable.
The situation flowed. Sometimes Helen's boyfriend, Alex, spent the night at Grandmother Annie's with his new family; sometimes he was away. Details skulked; reality shifted.
"I don't know the baby's last name," said Grandmother Annie. "I think she took Alex's last name for the baby, but I don't know what Alex's last name is."
The confusion extended back in time. Because Alex and Helen were minors, they needed parental consent for marriage. His folks agreed readily, but Barbara exploded.
"They had a nasty fight over that," recalled Marjorie. "She slapped Helen when she was pregnant with baby Mary Jane. Barbara screamed at Helen that she was too young to become a grandmother."
Barbara's three other kids, all of whom are now lodged with foster parents, lived the good life compared to Helen's struggle to make ends meet.
Today, Helen and Alex, both without high school diplomas, deliver fliers a few hours every day for cash, a job his father lined up for the new parents.
Despite slapping Helen and flipping out over her new status as a grandmother, Barbara pines over the infant. In fact, she drowns in emotion every time she visits the apartment.
Barbara had lived in the same complex as a teenage bride. Those better times still glistened in her eyes.
"I lived here when I was pregnant with Richie," said Barbara as she waited, subdued and tearful, in Marjorie's office, hopeful of a visit with kin.
"Only baby shower I ever had was in this apartment. It's the happiest memory of my life. My mom and dad lived here when dad was still alive. This is where everything happened. I grew up in this neighborhood."
In the old days, a pool sparkled in the courtyard. Now, dirt covered the hole. But Barbara remembered a photograph of her husband Lennie jumping into the water, grinning to beat the band.
"He's all I think about, he's the only man I'll ever love. He was my first love, the father of my kids. I was a virgin when I married him."
Barbara said the moment she saw Lennie, she knew he was the man for her.
"He was kind, generous and humorous. No fronts, always himself. Everyone blames me, but his family had their problems, too. His mother ended up marrying his uncle. Only time I saw his father was 16 years ago, when we was hitched.
"My husband, God rest his soul, he's the one that turned us on to crack. He put us in this place. That was three years ago.
"'I hate you, you fucking bitch,' those were his last words to me."
Barbara had emptied out a good portion of the tissue box in Marjorie's office.
"I wish it were me that died. I'd like to see him in this position. Would he be any better at doing what needs doing? Why was it me that had to live?"
Barbara eased her tragedies with happier memories from a childhood that preceded the apartment complex.
"We lived on the go, picking olives, strawberries, loganberries, whatever. It was fun. Mom and Dad would be up in the trees, and all us kids were on the ground picking up. It was their way of keeping us busy. We'd be up at four in the morning for the strawberries. You want to pick them when it's still cold. When the sun gets on them, they get soft. I liked doing it. I liked the cold weather.
"Then we'd get up in the middle of the night. Let's go. We'd leave everything behind 'cept what could fit in the car. Then it was down the highway."
The family's luck ran out down South.
"There was an auto accident. My dad went to jail, and my mother was in the hospital six weeks in a body cast. The state of Arkansas took the eight youngest kids away from my mother. It's deja vu all over again."
Barbara's downward spiral now propelled itself. Crack, once a problem, was now an answer.
"Crack's been my handicap, my crutch, my mate. It's all I have to lock out ideas. It doesn't cost any more than anything else."
And when Barbara was high, or when she was strung out, Marjorie barred her from the apartment's gates.
"Sometimes I run in fast, like a spy, when my kids are in my mom's place. But sometimes I have to watch from a distance. They can't see me.
"It kills me, it tears me up. My kids are running up to Marjorie and hugging her. It could have been me; it should have been me."
Shortly after her granddaughter was born, Barbara tried to visit Helen and Grandmother Annie, but Marjorie hovered over the scene.
"I watched Barbara with three different johns. She'd jump into their cars, trucks, drive off, come back. She didn't shower, clean up, and she wanted to go in around the newborn and demand money from her elderly mother. I watched all this, and I told Barbara I wasn't letting her in through the gate," said Marjorie.
Before very long, however, Marjorie relented.
On July 14, on the second anniversary of Lennie's suicide, Barbara was allowed in.
Lennie's ashes sat in an urn upon a shelf in Grandmother Annie's apartment. Four generations of the family huddled for a photographic portrait: great-grandmother Annie, grandmother Barbara, Helen the newest mom and infant Mary Jane.
All of the Blandon women in the photograph had given birth at the age of 16.
The very next Monday, Barbara was back at the gate looking to come in.
"She wanted money from Annie," said Marjorie. "I told her to forget it."
One month later, Barbara took a part-time job at the Phoenix library. She told everyone she was going to get her kids back.
Marjorie encouraged her.
"No matter what, no matter how bad she is, Grandmother Annie's daughter is a mother. And no matter what Barbara does, there is not a woman on this Earth, best mother to worst prostitute, who doesn't want her babies."
Dr. Goldstein's difficulties with Richie sprang from fissures deeper than the immediate threat of cancer or the fullness of the doctor's calendar. The problems percolated through emotional soil into the geological depths of his youth.
Dr. Goldstein's 1930s childhood--really, part of another age--and his formal, Masterpiece Theatre personality, clashed with Richie's streetwise moves and mindset.
The doctor was not completely oblivious to the contrast.
"I am somewhat of a flat affect but compulsive personality," said Goldstein, trampling the apparent. "I like neatness and cleanliness. When I was young, punishment was enduring lectures on the evil of sin, bad manners and moral infractions . . ."
Despite the differences between them, despite Goldstein's emotional fear and his physical anxiety, the doctor eventually embraced Richie, merged him into what had been, day-to-day, a childless home.
How could such a massive, tectonic shift in one man's behavior take place in the space of a year?
The truth is, Dr. Goldstein's parents raised him to face the challenges life, and Esther, rained down upon him.
"My parents were supportive, loving, kind but strict," noted Dr. Goldstein. "[They] imbued me with feeling of righteous indignation at wrongs, sins, inequities and unfairness."
And once the doctor looked past his own fears, he realized no one faced more inequity and unfairness than Richie. After raising three children of his own, Josh Goldstein agreed to attend the state's foster parenting class so he could help raise Richie Blandon.
If the doctor's childhood sounds almost Victorian in its rigidity, its moral underpinning gave Dr. Goldstein the tensile strength to rebound from life's blows. And for all his fears about the boy's family, Dr. Goldstein also recognized portions of the unmarked trail he and Esther traversed with Richie: The doctor's two older sisters, whom he described as his "best friends," had also been adopted.
Dr. Goldstein returned to his lifelong values, rather than wallow in grief over his own circumstances. For all of his sanctimonious preaching, he lived his beliefs. Concern for children's medical well-being on the global scale sprouted from the same vine that nourished the love of his own children.
After his wife left him and the kids, he had been a single parent for 20 years.
"I wasn't an absent parent," said Goldstein. "A little shadowy, perhaps. But I was always there in the morning and again at night. I was a parent."
Now, in his cavelike office, the only decoration is a single wall devoted entirely to pictures of his kids and his grandchildren. A fragile newspaper clipping from February 28, 1979, reads: "Single Father Discovers Cooking Can Be Fun."
Over time, Richie found that Esther's nurturing free spirit was complemented by the doctor's insistence upon boundaries and responsibility.
"I set up parameters, discipline," said Dr. Goldstein. "It fostered intimacy instead of separating us."
Unexpectedly, Dr. Goldstein also added nonsense.
Driving down the street one day, Richie watched Dr. Goldstein start barking at a local canine. Laughing out loud, Richie asked what was going on.
"I speak dog," replied Dr. Goldstein.
Richie began explaining to friends that once they got to know the doctor, they would learn that the old man had a great sense of humor.
Even as he waited for follow-up medical screening after his surgery to determine if his cancer had spread, Dr. Goldstein plunged into a commitment to Richie. He took out insurance policies to guarantee the cost of the boy's college education. Richie mattered to the doctor.
This fall, overhearing his wife describe their latest parenting hurdle, Dr. Goldstein offered a correction.
"When she says, 'I, I, I,'" objected the doctor, "she means, 'we, we, we.'"
Beneath the prickly crust, just as Esther anticipated, Dr. Goldstein's heart was as soft as alluvial mud.
"Richie and I did not have any intimacy when he first came into our home," said Dr. Goldstein. "In the beginning, I preferred that. I didn't have to give out much of myself. But that isn't how life works."
How does life work?
"I did not anticipate that he would call me 'dad,'" said Dr. Goldstein. "You know, we both wear the same glasses. I did not anticipate that others would think he was my son.
"It is not unpleasant."
Located in the industrialized sector of the river bottom, next door to steel yards and truck freight lines, Maricopa County's juvenile court facility measures time less in the second chances given to teenagers than in the Styrofoam cups of boiled coffee consumed by those who work there.
After slipping past a weapons detector, kids in baggy pants, bandannas and loose-fitting Filas lounge in side rooms and corridors. They wait with parents whose faces are pinched with irritation and tension. Placid lawyers kill the time.
And on September 23, 1996, a hearing was held to determine Richie Blandon's future. Esther Gould and Dr. Josh Goldstein hoped to gain legal custody of the boy.
In a hallway, before the custody hearing, Esther was distraught. A day earlier, Richie failed, for the second time, the test to become a soccer referee. Esther was consumed with doubts.
After all, this was not her child.
"I am not a person who shares Richie's background. In some ways, I'm really not an appropriate match for him; I'm a great provider, but I don't know what to say to a kid who fails a soccer test because he doesn't read well enough," worried Esther.
"Maybe it's not a good emotional match. He might as well be from Thailand, an exchange student."
On top of her doubts, remorse over Barbara shattered Esther.
"This whole thing is ridiculous," she observed. "Even if Barbara wasn't a crack head, she couldn't meet the court's standards. Yet I feel guilty because I know she must want her children."
And then it just spilled out.
"Does Barbara hate me?"
How could she not?
At a Mexican taqueria after the hearing, Barbara ate enchiladas and ripped into Esther between mouthfuls.
"I loathe that woman. She said she wanted to try to help me and my family, but I see what she did now clearly. She wiggled her way into my life. I thought she was a friend.
"I should have stayed where I belonged. She moved us into a better neighborhood, and inside a month my husband was dead. Less than a month.
"I was working, he wasn't. I took his pride away. I hate her.
"But she showed me what money and power can do. Now my son's into it."
Barbara asked if she could be dropped off after lunch at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. She'd heard they were hiring part-time help at the hot dog stands, and a job might help get her head straight.
Everything about the hearing disoriented Barbara. In the hallway, before the judge was ready to see them, Richie sat quietly with Esther. Ten yards away, his mother stood alone. Someone had given her a ride to the hearing, and she had not yet figured out a way home afterward. Barbara daubed at her eyes and nose with clotted tissues, every single thing about her life wrong.
When the troubled group entered the judge's chamber, Barbara stood before a total stranger who wore a robe. She explained why the state of Arizona should not take her children. She said she was busy looking for work.
Everyone in the room, including her son, knew she was lying.
What else could she do?
In a room sealed off from everyone except the immediate parties, a decision was put off. All will return again for the final verdict in January.
At the end of the hearing, Barbara walked outside and stood in the parking lot. She spotted Richie striding across the asphalt in the company of a social worker.
"I love you," she shouted to her son.
Richie continued walking, looking neither to the right or the left.
At lunch after the hearing, Barbara said she wanted her children to demonstrate that they still love her before she cleaned up. The court had demanded that Barbara pass two urine analysis screenings to prove that she is off crack before allowing visitation with the kids.
"All I'm asking before I go through this test stuff is to see my kids, so that I can know that it's worth it. I want to see if they still love me. I met with Richie in an office before the hearing and asked for a hug, and I couldn't even get that."
Though it is true that her son shunned her, this lament of Barbara's is such an obvious emotional con that she has constructed other dodges.
To Barbara, the urine tests waste her time.
"CPS told me to go into rehab; I told them, 'Forget it. I don't have to. I used to be into crack real heavy. I spent $1,500 one day. I went back for possies [small amounts of crack advanced on credit], and ran up another $500 that I owed. I'm lucky if I do $10 a day now. I control it. It doesn't control me. I only do it when I want it."
For all of her comebacks, Barbara is, nonetheless, resigned.
"I feel, in the end, they'll get my kids anyway. They know I can't do this. They know already that they've won. I lose."
The reality left her frustrated and bitter.
"Everything is, 'The Kids, The Kids'--the kids are just fine. In all of this, I have one person [a court-appointed advocate]. I can't remember his name. He doesn't contact me. No one's thinking about me.
"The court says I have to provide a home. How am I supposed to do that? How am I supposed to come up with a three-bedroom home? I'm hooking on the street. I'm even afraid to do that. Remember when I said I was in jail for prostitution? Now I hear there's no information on the computer that I served my six days. I'm afraid to walk around. They'll arrest me."
Barbara lost her part-time job at the library shortly before the hearing. Her world is in such total disarray that she grasps at shards of relief. She made a new friend at the library, someone who was not a pimp, a john or a junkie.
"He's a hairdresser in Scottsdale. Yesterday he did my hair, so that I would look presentable for court. We had lunch at the Red Robin in Scottsdale. It was so nice to get away from my life for just one day.
"If people could see what I'm going through instead of looking down their noses at me . . ."
She let the thought trail off like sour-smelling smoke.
After a short pause, she continued.
"If anyone could see what I see, they'd terminate me."
At the end of lunch, her mother's ache returned.
"Did you see Richie in the parking lot?
"It's like I embarrassed him."
As Barbara finished her meal, she said her period had started, and she had no protection. Grabbing some paper hand towels from the rest room, she asked to be dropped at Grandmother Annie's, instead of Veterans' Memorial Coliseum.
Following the hearing, Richie was completely lost and despondent.
"I couldn't concentrate on anything all day," he said.
He had dressed himself for the hearing, choosing a polo shirt with a collar, conservative slacks and a pair of Dr. Goldstein's shoes. His own appearance mattered to him.
And Barbara's appearance shocked the young boy.
"My mom, did you see how she was dressed, a sun dress, no hose, no underwear?"
Barbara had said she overslept and just threw on the first thing she could reach. The skimpy outfit revealed scabs from the top of her head down to her feet.
In a conversation outside the judge's chamber, she denied that Dion had beaten her again, as Richie suspected. She said that a stranger mugged her a day or two before the court appearance.
The only thing Richie could remember about the closed-door sit-down with his mother was that she had passed gas loudly in front of the social worker.
He spun into a major cycle of depression, unable to function for two weeks.
Richie was mortified by his mother.
"My mother never cared about nothing. If the cops brought me home, she was all, 'Well, what'd he do now? Take him to jail; he'll learn his lesson.'
"She only worried about how she'd get her drugs, not about how we'd eat or sleep. Nothing's changed."
By the time Barbara finished her appearance before the judge, Esther no longer suffered pangs of guilt.
"She told the judge, 'I love my children,'" recalled Esther. "'I want to see them, and the only reason I haven't done urine analysis is because I've been too busy looking for a job.'
"Can you believe the nerve?
"When I watched her, I realized she wasn't good enough to be Richie's mother. I'm better."
In November, Barbara got into a physical fight with her daughter Helen inside Grandmother Annie's apartment. Mother and daughter argued over a tube of lipstick.
In the struggle, Barbara kicked infant Mary Jane.
Marjorie, the apartment manager, called the police and permanently barred Barbara from the complex.
Shortly after the misery of September's custody hearing in 1996, bubbles of good news popped.
Test results in October showed no recurrence of Dr. Goldstein's cancer. For the time being, he was clean.
Carol found a job in a major law firm, and Sarah prospered in an East Coast ad agency.
And then Richie, on his third attempt, passed the soccer test.
On his way to an October game he would referee, Richie found little cause for excitement.
"I don't really like it all that much," said Richie. "This ref's uniform looks pretty goofy, and the parents and coaches are a problem. There is always some adult standing over me and yelling during the breaks."
Why, then, did he persist so long in trying to gain accreditation? Was it only to please Esther and Josh?
"Not really. I want a car someday. I work from 8:30 to 2:30 on Saturdays and get paid $9 an hour. It's pretty weird getting a check in the mail," said Richie.
He wants a Honda Civic.
"Esther invests my money for me. In my investments, I have part of the company. As the company grows, so will my money. Whatever percentage of the company I have, I'll have that much of their growth."
From gang member wanna-be to young man with a portfolio, Richie was a dervish of change.
The tutoring had begun to take effect. In his new school, he held his own in high school math. There were no more fistfights.
And every Saturday morning, Richie worked as a referee.
As the October soccer match progressed, Richie tried to talk up one of the coaches.
"Didn't you tie these guys in an earlier game?"
The game-riveted coach ignored the remark. And Richie let the snub slide, an act of restraint that would have been unthinkable just a year or two earlier.
As action moved down the field, a small woolly dog darted onto a vacant section of the grass racing wildly between an idle goalie and the two sweepers. Richie laughed out loud.
With Thanksgiving only a few short weeks away, Esther considered the upcoming dinner and the disastrous holiday a year earlier, when her daughters behaved so poisonously and broke her heart.
She accepted, understood, forgave.
"My children chose not to live in Phoenix," said Esther. "I think, at this time in my life, I could easily have had a really empty life. My husband works 12 hours a day.
"I could not make a life out of being Mrs. Dr. Goldstein. And that's nothing to do with Josh. It's just that I am an independent person. My children were my ideology for quite a while. Maybe that's why my kids were upset by Richie."
As Thanksgiving 1996 loomed, Esther's daughters reappraised the situation.
Both daughters no longer have one foot in their childhood home and one foot out. Today they are more independent. With their own lives in full swing, they are better able to allow Esther to go on with hers.
"People, my friend's parents, for example, suggested she should have been present during the surgery, and there again to dispense chicken soup afterwards. But she is the reason I am as independent as I am. She taught me to stand on my own two feet," said Carol.
And Carol's shock at Richie's presence during her mom's visit has subsided.
"When Richie came out to California with her, he really busied himself. He rented a bike one day, roller blades the next. He picked up that there was something different going on. He's very perceptive, quietly so.
"I know I am at the top of my mother's list; but there are others on her list."
Sarah recently concurred.
"She doesn't mother in the conventional sense," said Sarah. "She mothers in ways that are critical, unique and more effective than conventional mothering."
Instead of focusing upon their disappointments with their mother, both ladies take nourishment from Esther's efforts prior to the surgery.
"I have more acceptance now," said Sarah. "I think Richie has come further. I think I can be more generous. I accept it more because of the time that has passed. Our family is constantly changing its boundaries, so there are periods of adjustment."
A Better Thanksgiving
Esther could not believe her eyes on Thanksgiving Day.
"Richie was cracking jokes, talking with everyone. He was damned near debonair," said Esther.
He also pitched in without anyone asking, polishing silverware, setting the table and volunteering to help.
"I'll bet I'm the only 14-year-old boy emptying out the dishwasher at 6:30 in the morning," he told Dr. Goldstein.
The doctor initiated the youngster into the ritual of Goldstein's turkey stuffing, which involved all sorts of secret ingredients--especially giblets--that you must not tell the womenfolk about.
Richie's younger brother, John, spent the holiday at the Goldsteins', and the two boys romped together all day.
Carol was as astonished as her mother.
"I could not believe how much he grew up over the past year. He seemed like an average middle-class kid.
"Richie assumed the role of guardian with his younger brother. He told John to tuck in his shirt, not to play ball in the house, and how to act appropriately around adults."
Despite the obvious relief over the joyous gathering, Esther's turmoil is not over. A permanent custody hearing awaits. Esther no longer believes, as she once did, that she was solely responsible for the destruction of Richie's family; she acknowledges the role of crack.
But if she has forgiven herself, she knows also that she was midwife to a mother's worst nightmare: a family's breakup.
She remains troubled over the very idea of taking another woman's child.
"The state could come to me and say that I slept with too many men, that it was an inappropriate atmosphere for children to grow up in. I have always lived an alternative lifestyle. How would I feel?
"I break rules every single day. But if someone told me I wasn't a good mother, I would shoot them at close range."
As for the heartache she endured when her husband and daughters rejected Richie, she is philosophical. During her darkest moments, Esther fell back upon her belief in family values--her husband's traditional approach and her own more experimental ones.
The mutual acquaintance who introduced her to the doctor warned Esther in the beginning that Goldstein's greatest shortcoming was that he was too involved with his own kids. She believed in Josh. And Esther's faith in her daughters' decency, in the way they were raised, sustained her.
That faith was well-founded. Even during the worst moments with Richie, her daughters spoke glowingly of their mother.
"She has been the profound influence in my life," said Carol. "She is involved in everything in my life. . . . Not many of my peers would say that about their parents."
The youngest daughter, Sarah, had an abortion last year, and she is brutally frank about choosing that option. She did not think she was prepared to be as good a mom as Esther.
"She gives so much and teaches so much. Her motivations are so well-intentioned," said Sarah. "She is more evolved than any other human being I know."
So, of course, when her girls came to their senses this Thanksgiving about Richie, Esther was not shocked, only relieved.
Her daughters, on the other hand, sounded surprised with themselves.
"To be honest, my sister and I talked later, and we both thought it was one of the best Thanksgivings we've ever had," said Carol.
For his part, Richie is happy with Josh and Esther. He does not want to return to his mother.
"When the family broke up, I was mad at my mother," said Richie. "She was always saying, 'Nothing will ever break us up. Your dad already tried, but it's not going to happen.' . . . Even if she cleaned up, I'm old enough to choose. My brother and sister might have to go back because they're younger. I would stay with Josh and Esther. I'm scared that it will all happen again.
"It's quiet here. There is not that much trouble around. The people are better, friendlier."
Richie's ordeal continues to unfold. Sheets of depression cover him periodically. And the gated community where he lives, while safe, is unforgiving.
Though he ditched rap for Nirvana, rock 'n' roll did not give him a passport to life in a neighborhood of expensive golf courses. Mi Vida Loca was about fists; uptown kids use their words.
He was told at summer camp that his father must have been a real loser to let him grow up in a crack house. On a trip back East, his host, a neighbor boy, informed the other kids that Richie was only hanging around because he had nowhere else to go.
"They're just lame," responded Richie.
He may never wear his Izods as gracefully as the others. And Richie's teenage years--and all the problems of adolescence--are closing in on Josh and Esther like a set of flashing red lights in the rearview mirror.
Yet they express no regrets.
And the stress over the past three years?
What of it, ask the foster parents.
Esther and Josh are certainly not blase. No, they have chosen to overcome all obstacles.
"Despite 10 years on the Homeless Shelter board, I never saw anyone who was poor, or on drugs, or on welfare," said Esther. "So I had no idea how difficult this would be. But it has been worth every ounce of heartache and sweat. We love Richie."
Esther has attempted to be less random, less impulsive in her approach to problems. It hasn't always been easy.
At one point, Richie's tutor threatened to quit unless Esther started paying attention to the boy's homework. So Esther buckled down.
Carol observed that she has never known her mother to be so focused.
"The entire family has a short attention span," said Carol. "But she is different with Richie."
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Esther no longer speaks so smugly in global terms about drug addiction and feral children of the teeming underclass. Instead, she has concerned herself with one boy. She wants to know if Richie has enough friends; can she get him to his soccer game on time?
Knowing her own rooted fears regarding money, Esther closed down her business and went to work inside a Fortune 500 company. She does not want to face again the kind of financial wobble she lived through from 1991 to '93. She wants a steady paycheck as she raises Richie.
Esther Gould changed her entire life to save Richie Blandon's.
Richie's little brother, John, was at the Goldsteins' during Thanksgiving because his foster mother has contracted breast cancer. She was operated on two days before the holiday. John's foster parents will probably not be able to keep him.
Dr. Goldstein suggested that he and Esther take John in and raise him.
Like Esther's biological daughters, Richie thought it was his best Thanksgiving. Ever.