"RUNAWAY-LIFE ON THE STREETS" (second edition)





I met Donald Watts one evening, when he came walking through one of the back alleys of Jacksonville, Florida. I had been living in the alley for almost a week.

I was standing next to the garbage can, raking my finger around the sides of an empty tuna can, trying to get whatever fish might be left.

"You ain't eating that, are you?" he asked, as he stopped in front of me.

I was a little embarrassed, and threw the empty tin back into the garbage can.

"If you're hungry, I'll take you over to my house and I'll get my Mom to fix you something to eat."

He turned and began walking away. I followed him, several paces behind.

Donald was a much taller boy than I was, but I could tell that we were both about twelve-years-old. He might have been thirteen, maybe. I had a hard time keeping up with him, because his legs were so long.

After walking for about half an hour, he stopped in front of an old house on the corner of Park and Forest Streets. I just stood there looking at the old board structure, with its peeling white paint. I had seen old houses before, but this was really old, like a shack. I looked at Donald to see if he might be playing a joke on me, or something. Just about that time, the front door opened and there stood an old woman, bent over at a forty-five-degree angle.

"Mom, this is Roger and he is hungry," Donald told his mother.

"Roger, you come on in this house, right this minute and let's see what we can find you to eat," said his mother.

I followed the two of them into the house, looking in every direction as I walked. Donald and I stopped in the living room and his mother headed off to the back.

The house was very dark inside. There was only light in the front room. It was hanging in the center of the ceiling, by an old green cord, which had its paper covering falling off. I stood there watching as Donald screwed the bulb into the socket, giving us light.

"Have a seat," he told me.

I looked around and saw several old couches, which had the stuffing falling out. There was a large stuffed chair in the corner, but it had no seat, just old black springs, and some cotton stuff.

"I'm going to the bathroom," he said, as he walked toward a dark opening at the end of the living room.

I sat down on the edge of the couch and watched as he pulled a curtain over the doorway. Finding that strange, I looked around and saw that not one of the openings had a door. I looked to my left when something flashed in my eye. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. I could see the cars passing by, through the boards in the wall.

"How come these here walls ain't got any insides to 'em," I thought to myself.

Donald came out of the bathroom and asked me if I wanted to sit out on the front porch. I sat down on the unpainted wooden deck and stared at the traffic.

"Here you go, young man," said his mother, as she walked out onto the porch. She handed me a large plate of fried potatoes and a slice of bread.

I had not had anything hot to eat for almost a week. I know they must have thought I was a pig. They watched me gobble down the entire plate of food in less than a minute.

"Would you like for me to cook you another plate of food?" she asked.

"No Ma'am. I had plenty. Thank you."

I do not know why or how it happened, but I ended up spending the night with them. When his mother prepared supper, we once again ate fried potatoes with one slice of bread.

His mother had a small army cot in the corner of the kitchen. Donald and I slept on several old, stained mattresses on the living room floor. After they fell asleep, I lay there for hours watching the traffic through the cracks in the walls.

The next morning his mother was up early, getting ready to go to work. Donald had told me that she worked at the Goodwill Store. I did not know how anybody could work on a job, walking all crippled like. It took her a long time to even get from one side of the living room to the other, much less walk to the bus stop and catch the bus to work.

"Donald, you make sure you go to school today, son," she told him, as she headed out the front door.

Several minutes after she left, Donald got up and began getting ready for school. I was already dressed because I had slept in my clothes. I folded the small mattress in half, and walked out to the front porch to wait for my friend.

As he walked out on the porch, he told me I could stay at their house until he got out of school at three-thirty. Then he walked down the street, disappearing around the corner.

I sat on the porch for several hours, before I went back into the house to use the bathroom. When I had finished, I began to walk around the house. When I looked around the kitchen there was hardly any food. There were several bags of potatoes in the corner, and some of them were rotten. There were four or five cans of beans and a can of carrots sitting on the old wooden shelf. In the refrigerator, there was some cheese and a jar of pickles. I opened the small freezer and found one small package of meat that had ice stuck all over it.

I walked back out onto the porch and sat there wondering. I couldn't figure out why anyone would share their food with me, when they had so little for themselves.

I do not know what got into me but I jumped up and ran down the street until I came to the A&P Grocery Store. I walked in, walked right up to the man at the meat counter and said, "I need to get some real good meat, and I need it really bad too. I'll work hard for it, I really will," I told the man.

The man reached over, picked up a white apron, and threw it at me. I just stood there looking at him.

Get your little butt behind the counter and get to work," he said, smiling at me.

For five hours, I worked cleaning counters, shining glass, and mopping the floor. At two o’clock, I told the man that I had to go. He wiped his hands on his apron, and walked to the front of the store to the cash register.

How much do I owe you?" he asked.

"I don't want no money. I just want food and meat."

"Why do you want food? You're just a kid."

"I got a friend who don't have much food, and his mom is real crippled like. She walks funny, and I need the food for them."

Though I had probably earned less than five dollars, the butcher gave me almost twenty dollars worth of meat, and canned goods. It took me three trips to get all the groceries to Donald's house.

I was sitting on the porch when Donald returned from school. I did not say anything to him about the groceries. He and I walked down to the park at Five Points, and watched the ducks swimming in the small pond. When his mother came home, we were sitting on the porch talking to each other. She, out of breath, hobbled up onto the porch, smiled at me and sat down. She opened her purse and took out several dollars.

"Son, you and Roger walk down to the grocery store and get us a small package of hamburger for supper."

"There's a hamburger pack in the refrigerator," I told her.

"Well, that's strange. I ain't bought hamburger meat in a long while," she said, getting up from her chair and walking into the house.

About a minute later, Donald and I walked inside to get out of the sun. I looked up when I heard Donald’s Mother coming out of the kitchen. She stood in the doorway crying.

"What's wrong, mom?" Donald asked his mother.

"Oh God, did you boys steal all this food?"

"I did not steal any food, really! I was in school all day."

His mother looked directly at me.

"I worked at the A&P all day, and I got paid in groceries," I told her.

Donald's mother sat down on the end of the couch and cried for more than five minutes. He and I just sat there, our hands folded on our laps, having no idea what we should do.

That night I thought that everyone would be celebrating and happy, but no one said a word as we ate our supper. I watched Donald and his mother scarf down their food, in the same manner as I had eaten the potatoes and bread the day before.

After supper, Donald and I washed and dried the dishes. Then we joined his mother, who was sitting out on the front porch.

An hour later, Don and I had unrolled our mattresses and were about to go to bed. His mother asked me to come out on the front porch for a minute.

She and I talked for almost fifteen minutes. I told her that I had run away from the orphanage several weeks earlier, and that I could no longer take the abuse.

"You are a very good boy. Thank you for the wonderful dinner," she told me. She wrapped her arms around me, and squeezed as tightly as she could.

I am not sure what it was that I was feeling at that very moment, but it was a wonderful feeling. For the first time in years, I felt needed and felt that I had a worth, to someone.

When she let loose of me, I looked at her and I said, "If you will let me stay here, I will take care of you, if you will take care of me."

Once again, she began to cry.

Donald stuck his head out the doorway to see what was happening.

"You can stay here and you don't have to take care of me," she said.

Donald walked over and hugged his mom.

I stayed with them for almost four months. I worked very little during that period, and I contributed very little to our support. Mrs. Watts' income was less than thirty dollars a week. There were just no jobs available for twelve-year-old boys.

Four days before I left Jacksonville, Donald and I were walking down the street. He told me that he wanted to finish school, and get a good paying job. That he wanted to buy his mother a couch and chair that did not have holes in it, and that he wanted to buy her a comfortable bed so she wouldn't hurt so badly at night. He also told me that he wanted to buy her some of those fancy little glass statues that sit on the shelf, like the ones in rich peoples houses.

Late that night, when Donald and his mother were asleep, I got up, went outside, and sat down on the porch. Across the street was a restaurant and small bank. I watched as a car pulled into the bank, open the night deposit box, and dropped in a small bag. When the car drove away, I walked over and stuck my hand inside the box to see where the bag had gone. The back of the box had a metal plate on the back, so that no one could reach inside. I went back to the house and I lay there all night trying to figure out how to get that money out of the bank.

The next day after Donald and his mother left the house, I spent hours collecting Coca Cola bottles. Late that evening I cashed them in, took the money, and went to the store. I purchased a cardboard box of tinker toys, fishing line, and ten fishhooks, which I hid in the bushes.

The following morning I walked around the corner to Mr. Lewis' machine shop, where I had him drill holes in each end of the two-inch sticks. I then glued the sticks into the small circle, and attached a long fishing line to one of the sticks. Through the other holes, I attached numerous fishing hooks.

Late that night I sat out on the porch waiting for the car to arrive at the bank. About 1:00 a.m., it drove in and made the deposit. Ten minutes later, I walked to the bank and opened the metal drawer. Holding onto the long fishing line, I placed the Tinker Toy apparatus into the drawer and I shut it closed. When I heard the wooden structure hit the bottom, I began pulling the fishing line up and down, until I felt the fish hooks snag something. Then I pulled on the fishing line until I could pull no farther. I opened the night deposit drawer, and there before my eyes, sat the bag of money.

I opened the bag, took out the money, folded it, and stuck it in my two front pockets. I took the white bag out behind the machine shop and threw it in the garbage can, covering it with paper and trash.

After returning to the house, I went into the bathroom, pulled the curtain shut, and counted the money. All together, there was $842.00.

The next day, after Donald and his mother had left the house; I walked downtown to Rhodes Furniture. I bought two new beds, a new couch, matching chairs, and a dinette set. I paid for the furniture, and then rode with the delivery-man because I did not know the address of Donald's house.

After the new furniture was in the house, and the old stuff hauled away, I walked down to Five Points where I purchased as many ceramic trinkets as I could carry. I took the little treasures back to the house and sat them in every nook and cranny that I could find.

I took forty dollars and stuck it in my pocket, just enough money for me to hitchhike to Albany, Georgia, later that evening. The remaining money I put in the freezer, for Donald and his mother. I closed the front door of the house and I walked out onto the sidewalk. Slowly I turned around, looked at the old shack. It was the first time in my life that anyone had ever cared for me. I placed my hands over my face, and I cried.