When I return from my parents, I run downstairs and holler for Estelle and Bud to meet me at the dining table.
“Okay, so, I’ve been thinking—”
“Uh oh.” Bud interrupts. “Sounds like trouble!”
I give him a playful shove and continue, “I’m planning to travel tonight. But I promise I’ve chosen something low key, with good reason. And I promise I’ll be careful.”
Estelle and Bud exchange glances of apprehension mixed with curiosity. Then she asks, “Where exactly are you thinking?”
“The Depression. You know, no witches around back then. I want to see if my parents are there. After they left us that clue in Salem. I went to visit them and my dad mentioned the Great Depression... I think they might be there now.”
“Listen, I know the idea of finding your parents is big. I just don’t want you to get lost in it,” Bud says.
For a moment, I feel angry at him for even suggesting that I won’t find them, but I make the effort to let it go. I know he’s only saying it because he loves me.
Estelle cuts in, “But the Great Depression isn’t too bad. What do you think, honey? That sounds pretty innocent to me.”
He frowns. “I think it’ll be dangerous. He can get himself into trouble there.”
I know why he’s insisting I shouldn’t go. He’s probably right, especially after the Trials fiasco. But Estelle doesn’t know. And nothing’s going to stop me from finding my parents.
“You know what? I think that’ll be a good one for you. You should go for it.” she adds.
“Great!” I shout, slamming my palms against the dinner table. “So it’s done. The Great Depression it is.”
Bud grabs my arm before I’m able to cut out. “I think we should talk about this some more.”
Estelle slaps his shoulder softly, “Oh what’s your problem? Let the boy go. It’s his ability too. And his parents.”
Bud arches an eyebrow at Estelle. “Suddenly it’s his ability too? You wanted him to stay locked up in his room.”
“I’ve had a change of heart.”
“Stelle, you know we’ve tried this before. We’ve tried this before. It’s the main reason you and I don’t travel anymore. If he can’t find them—which is likely…you really want to experience that all over again?”
“But this time might be different.”
He sighs, defeated. He throws me a glance and I hear everything he’s saying without him having to murmur a word. Be. Careful.
“I know I can find them. I’ll take care of myself. I promise.” I say it for both to hear, but stare only at him as I say it.
Estelle hugs me. “Good luck, sweetie,” she whispers in my ear. I know that deep down inside she’s praying that I’ll be successful. Maybe the hope of ever seeing her son again is long gone, but to know that they didn’t die in the fire... I’m sure it keeps her up at night.
“Hang on just a second.” Bud wanders off to the kitchen and returns with a medium-sized silver tin box from one of the cabinets. He removes the lid and pulls a rolled-up bundle from inside.
“You’ll probably need these.” He hands me three two-dollar bills. They look different from the ones I’ve seen before (not that I’ve really seen one since I was a kid). They’re less green, more gray. “We’ve collected a lot of different types of currency over the years. Just in case. Please be careful.”
“I promised you I would. You have my word.”
“We’ll be waiting for you.”
He gives me a pat on the shoulder hug and ushers me off.
I charge back to my room, launch myself sideways onto the bed with my arms and feet hanging off opposite sides, and grab the book.
The section on the Great Depression has dozens of pages of pictures. How am I supposed to choose the right one? I start with the first one and take a close look, but I don’t see anything that stands out like the small engraving in the Salem witch trials engraving
—until about twenty photos in, when I come across a half-page black-and-white image of a snow-covered field dotted with ragged tents and broken-down shacks. The caption reads “Hooverville, Central Park Great Lawn, New York.” I riffle through some of the other pages in the section, but something about this one photo stands out to me.
It’s the only Hooverville photo. This is it. I just know that this is the photo my parents used to escape the fire. I can feel it. But before I speak my words, I notice that the caption is dated December 17, 1932. It’s going to be freezing. I sneak over to Bud’s closet and scope out some winter clothes. At this point, I don’t even care about sticking out like a sore thumb. I change into a thick pair of gray sweatpants, two long-sleeved thermal shirts, and a heavy water-repellent snow jacket. I then go back to my room and put on two pairs of long socks and my heavy black boots. Thinking I need headgear and something for my hands, I remember the “winter clothes” bin in the second floor utility closet and run over to it. I borrow a plain blue beanie, a plaid Brooks Brothers scarf and fur-lined leather gloves. I look ridiculous, but at least I’ll be warm. I race back to my room and grab the book. Finally I turn to the photo again, take a deep breath, and recite the words.
The familiar burst of wind and noise engulfs me as I travel to the tragic era known as the Great Depression.
A foul odor cuts through the frigid morning air as I stand gawking at the field of depressing shacks in the middle of Central Park. From what my dad said, “Hoovervilles” were named after President Herbert Hoover. I wonder what it felt like to have such a sad association with your name. Thinking back to my dad’s brief history lesson, I remember him saying that Hoover was a one-termer and known as America’s most hated man during this period. And its mid-December so I’m sure last month’s election is fresh on everyone’s mind. With his loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt, New York’s well-known Governor, I can’t think of a worse way to get the boot. It sucks to be him, I’ll say that much.
I walk along the dirt and gravel paths trying not to gawk at the homeless men, women, and children all around me. I could never live like this. I almost feel guilty for complaining about my own life.
I pass groups of men hunched on broken tin crates outside wood shacks smoking cigarettes and playing cards. Their faces are pale and their chapped lips are bleeding as the corners of their mouths split apart. Despite their tattered trousers and jackets, many of them have sharp eyes and look as if they once had respectable jobs. Maybe they’ve gotten used to the chilly air, because they joke with each other as if it’s the height of summer. I wonder what they did before they had to resort to living illegally in the park. I know from the book that these men are only a few of the thousands of New Yorkers who have been reduced to begging for money or food from those still fortunate enough to have jobs.
As I slog through debris and broken shrubbery, I stop and smile at one tiny residence built of brick. My dad mentioned that many of the homeless were unemployed carpenters or bricklayers who used their skills to cobble together shelters for their families. I understand why he admired their resourcefulness. That’s the thing about survival—you make things happen, even from nothing.
A short time later, I pass a large cardboard tent that’s lodging a man and woman who have covered themselves under piles of old newspapers. They are clasping each other tightly to share their body heat, but they’re still visibly shivering.
Freckles of snow begin flurrying around me. I pull my beanie over my ears and zip up my jacket as tightly as I can. I turn a three-sixty, trying to decide where to start my search. This may be an old New York City, but it’s still New York City. And that means thousands of places where my parents might be.
Moments later, I spot a young boy crouching on a wooden plank. He’s wearing only a tattered pair of pants and an oversized t-shirt, and is trembling from the below freezing temperature. His head is buried in his lap and his frail arms are wrapped tightly around his knees.
“Hey, where are your parents?” I ask.
He looks up in surprise, and I can see that he’s been crying. The shadows under his eyes and the sharp bones of his face tell me he’s close to starving.
He wipes his runny nose and mutters, “I don’t know. I can’t find them.”
“Don’t cry, buddy. Here, you must be freezing.” I take off my jacket, scarf and gloves and help him put them on. The jacket falls almost to his knees. “Put these on before you get sick. How about we try to find your parents?”
He huddles into the jacket and nods, then looks up at me with desperation brimming in his yellow-tinged eyes. “But I’m so hungry, sir... can you please find me some food?”
I kneel down in the slushy dirt. The snow is falling harder. “When was the last time you ate?”
He looks at me and tries to think but obviously can’t remember. I feel my heart breaking. He’s living day after day with things I’ve never had to deal with, not even during my worst times in Nevada.
I grab his hand. “Let’s find you something now.”
We begin our hunt for a food vendor. During that time, he asks tells me, “Your eyes are so bright and purple. I want eyes like that.” He says.
“It’s not as fun as you think. Hey, what’s your name?”
“Martin,” he grins and puffs his small chest out. “It’s my dad’s name, too.”
“It’s a great name. Wish my name was Martin. So, Martin, what’s your favorite thing in the world to do?”
His eyes light up. “Sing! I love singing.”
To help distract him from the freezing cold during our search for food, I ask him, “Well, show me what you got. You’ll need a lot of practice if you’re going to be a famous singer one day.”
He sings the entire way, for nearly an hour, until we finally locate a street vendor with a hot dog cart, I watch in amazement as Martin devours three hot dogs, a bag of roasted chestnuts, and two glass bottles of Coca-Cola. I can’t believe that the entire meal costs less than one dollar! As I wipe the mustard from his chin, I see the life returning to his eyes and his body once again surging with little-boy energy. I say, “Hey, mind singing for me again?”
“Sure. What song this time?”
“Hmm … Surprise me.”
“Ooh! I know. My favorite song. It’s called “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. It’s by… uh… I forget his name—oh yea! Wayne King.”
I feel protective of him. Like I need to shield him from everyone around us.
We step onto Tenth Avenue and I see literally hundreds of people lined up on the sidewalk—throngs of unemployed men wearing hand-scrawled signs that list their trade and ask for work, couples and families begging passersby for money, others stationed at corners trying to sell apples. I can’t believe my eyes. How did so many Americans end up in such dire poverty? I’ve never been to New York, but I’ve seen enough TV and news footage to know that the New York of today is nothing like this.
I pull Martin behind me, somehow scared that someone might harm him or we might get separated. “Hey, buddy,” I say as I fight back my teeth from chattering. “We need to find your parents. It’s getting colder. What do they look like?”
He points back toward the park. “They were gonna try and get food for us yesterday... I was supposed to stay begging, but they never came back...”
I can’t even look him in the eyes. It’s difficult to imagine what it’s been like for him, even though I lost my parents as well. He’s faced with no warmth, no food, and worst of all…no hope. I shake the depressing thought from my head and keep us moving along.
We roam up and down the desolate, smoke-fouled streets scouring every soup kitchen we come across. Nothing, and forty-five minutes later I’m chilled to the bone. I want to help Martin, but what about my search for own parents?
Just ahead of us, two drunken, desperate homeless men break into a brawl. A police officer tries to intervene, but they’re apparently too much for him, so he steps aside. He keeps an eye on them with a bemused grin, though, as they slur insults and hurl fists wildly at each other. If this were another time and place, I would have probably stayed around to watch the spectacle.
I glance back at Martin. I have no clue what to do next. I can’t leave him by himself. He’s safe as long as he’s with me, but I also know I can’t stay here forever. I want to help him, but what about my search for own parents?
It’s getting colder by the minute, and the snow is falling faster and more heavily. We hurry back to the park. I’m praying every step of the way that Martin’s parents have found their way back to their shack. As we reach the park, a man waylays me and begs me for money. He’s missing a top front tooth and is barefoot except for a moth-eaten pair of knee-high socks that leave his left toe jutting through one of the holes. I know I can’t help every person who’s in need, but I can’t just walk away from him either. I take off my boots and hand them to him. Soon enough I’ll be safe in my own home.
“Here, sir. You need these more than I do.”
He stares at me in shock, apparently unable to speak. Then he snatches them out of my hand, hides them inside his tattered jacket, and scuttles away clutching them to his chest as if he fears someone will try to grab them.
At one point while Martin and I are scouring the park, he trips on a jagged piece of pipe on the ground and cuts his right calf. I take off one of the four socks I’m wearing and wrap it tightly around his leg. I almost have to laugh, because I’m starting to feel that if I stay here much longer, I’ll end up naked.
I gaze up at the grayed, subtle New York skyline and can’t help but wonder how I would survive if I had to live here. I don’t know if I’d have the resiliency to get through such disastrous times.
Time is really getting short, but I can’t quite bring myself to leave. I mean, I know I can escape all this just by saying a few words—but what about Martin?
Suddenly Martin screams, “Momma!” and runs toward a woman huddled in an oversized coat. She can’t be much older than twenty-five. Her black hair is plastered to her scalp from the snow. She kneels in the slush, pulls him into a fierce hug, and bursts into tears.
Oh, thank you, Lord! I breathe in relief. I shiver my way over her. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I found him, and he was cold and hadn’t eaten.”
“Momma, he gave me food!” Martin shouts. “He was so nice to me, Momma!”
She wipes her eyes and places her grimy hand on my shoulder. “Thank you for caring for my son. God will bless your soul,” she says with a heartfelt smile.
I smile back shyly, suddenly self-conscious and acutely aware of my purple eyes. I change the subject quickly when I remember the cash in my pocket. “Wait...” I dig into my back pocket and pull out the two-dollar bills and the change from the street vendor. I hand them to her. “It’s not much. But maybe it’ll help a little.”
She tears up again. “I—we are so thankful! Martin’s father’s in the city looking for work or food. I know he’ll be most thankful. What’s your name?”
“I’m Mrs. Terry, and you’ll be forever in our hearts.”
“You’re welcome. I was looking for my own parents when I found him. I couldn’t leave him alone.” I squat down in front of Martin. “Hey, buddy, you take care of yourself, you hear me? You keep that jacket on and never take it off. Oh, and take this, too.” I take off my beanie and wedge it onto his head. Then I check that my gloves are pulled up all the way on his tiny hands and hug him tightly. “And never stop dreaming or singing. Promise me!”
He nods and looks up at me with his huge, sad eyes. “I promise. Thank you, mister. Are you going to go now? Where will you go? Will you come back to see me?”
I can’t bear to look at him and stare down at the snow-covered ground instead. “I don’t think so, buddy. I have to go back home.”
After a long pause, he mutters, “Okay.” But he won’t look at me either.
“Wait a minute…” Mrs. Terry says. She stares into my eyes suspiciously. “Your eyes …”
“Oh. They’re … they’re—”
“You said you were looking for your parents?”
“I didn’t think twice of it at first. I was a mess trying to find my boy. But I did see a couple just a few blocks down. By a small café just over that way. They were oddly dressed and looked as if they had just cleaned a chimney. Covered it black dirt and all. I didn’t think anything of it. But I will never forget their eyes. Like yours.
“Where? Where’d you see them?”
She offers me some vague directions of the café. “I’m sorry I can’t remember the exact address. My mind was a mess.”
No… no, it’s okay. Thank you. You’ve helped more than you know.” I throw my arms around her and give her a hug.
Finally I walk away, but I have to turn around one more time before I lose sight of them. I station myself near a sagging tent and watch them a moment. They’re still hugging each other, and I see Martin’s mother raise her hands as if she may be praying.
I feel good and terrible at the same time—an odd jumble of emotions. I know I’ve done something good, but I can’t shake the idea that it wasn’t nearly enough. I kinda feel responsible for Martin. What if he doesn’t make it? With this weather, what are the chances that he and his parents will survive? It’s just going to get colder. My mind starts racing with images of all the disastrous things that could happen to the three of them. Tears—not from the frigid wind whipping through the encampment—come to my eyes.
I didn’t realize how much Martin’s situation has affected me and just how much of my time it’s taken. I’m exhausted and disappointed at myself, but even more than that, I’m envious of it all. Envious that although Martin may be struggling, he’ll be struggling alongside his parents.
I sprint in the direction Mrs. Terry gave me. My fingers quickly become numb and my nose burns with the biting of the snow, and is dripping nonstop. At this point I feel as if I’ve searched every café, restaurant, and building in sight. They’re here, I know it. What if they left? What if all the time I spent helping Martin ruined my chances at finding my own? What a waste. I was supposed to come here to find my parents and instead I find the mother of another.
I wanted to find them. I thought they’d be here. I needed it for me, but I wanted it for Bud and Estelle also. To ease their hearts so they’d know their children hadn’t been murdered. I’ve completely failed…again.
I look down at my snow-drenched socks. I begin the words that will return me to a life that I never realized was so privileged. “Take me home to what is mine. Back to present, back—”
I’m interrupted by voices shouting, “Gavin! Gavin!”