by | Dec 20, 1996 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Deshawn Chatman was tired of watching his mother do crack, tired of the smell, the little white pellets, the way she lit up from the four-burner stove in their kitchen. He was tired of finding her incoherent on the couch, her eyes glassed over, too high even to speak to him. So one day last spring he quit the thing he loved the most, the Cooley High basketball team, and he walked the few blocks to his small, decaying, red brick house on the northwest side of Detroit.

He stood on the porch, too young to shave, too young to drive, but old enough to know a drug dealer when he saw one.

And he waited for one to come.

“What do you want?” he asked the first man who showed up, a neighborhood dealer known as Maurice.

“Your mama at home?”

“Nah. She’s sick.”

“She’s at home. Open the door.”

“She’s gone.”

“Tell her I’m here. Tell her I got something for her.”

“Why you have to sell her that stuff? Why don’t you go on now, leave us alone?”

“Tell her I’m here.”

“I told you, she’s sick. Go away.”

Day after day, he stood guard this way, running interference, straight-arming the poison. And for a while, it worked. For a while, the kid turned back dealers and junkies, leaving them shrugging. “My mama ain’t here,” he insisted. They were not interested in confronting the 6-foot-2 basketball player, who wore a sneer to make him tougher than his soft and sinless face suggested. For a while, it worked. For a while, he protected his mother.

Then his mother made him stop.

She started yelling. She derided him with insults. She wanted what she wanted, what she needed, what she used. And she wanted it now.

“You let my friends in!” she hollered.

“Mama. They ain’t your friends.”

“Don’t tell me who my friends are. You ain’t nothing but a child. Open that door.”

“Why you have to do this?”


“Why you have to get high?”

“Look, I’ll stop, ‘Shawn. I’m gonna stop.”

“When, Mama? When are you gonna stop?”

He looked into her eyes, and he saw the answer. By the time the next knock came, he was in his room in the rear of the house, a house with no heat for the last three years, a house where Deshawn sleeps under old jackets to stay warm. He lay on his narrow bed, fighting back tears, even as the door opened and his mother’s so-called friends shuffled in for another night by the kitchen flame.

There is a world of some children that most of us know nothing about, a world that has little to do with parent- teacher conferences or Disney World vacations. It is a world in which guns and drugs are part of the scenery, and where surviving those things depends on whom you were born to, who raises you and where you live, which are often three different things. The questions in this world — the only questions, if you want to come out alive — are whom do you love, and whom do you trust?

Deshawn Chatman, age 15, loves his mother.

He trusts himself. No place to go

He sits inside the basketball office now, on the cusp between childhood and manhood, his hair cut close to the scalp, his eyes soft but unblinking, his angular body bent at sharp angles in the hard-backed chair. As near as he remembers it, he says, his mother has been on drugs since he was 8. He marks the years by the time she set the house on fire.

“She was angry with my stepfather over $100. She said he was hiding it. She was like, ‘Gimme my $100!’ She said if he didn’t give it to her, she would burn down the house.”

He didn’t. So she did.

First she lit the curtains on fire. Then the upstairs walls began to burn. Deshawn’s stepfather threw a bucket of water, but it did nothing. Next thing Deshawn knew he was out in the street, watching flames lick into the sky as the upper level of his home turned to ashes. He felt the stares of his neighbors as the fire engines approached.

“All my stuff was gone,” he says, “just like that.”

The firefighters came, doused the blaze and left. House fires in Detroit are not exactly uncommon. The neighbors went back into their homes, and Deshawn went back into his, even as the upstairs smoldered.

“Wasn’t no place else to go,” he says, shrugging.

The next day, a social worker took Deshawn to a foster home. He didn’t see his mother for nearly a year, and he didn’t speak to her, because she doesn’t have a phone. Eventually, he was taken in by an aunt, who had seven children of her own. He says that was fun, “because she bought me clothes.”

Then one day, his mother, using someone else’s phone, called his aunt’s house to speak to Deshawn.

“You’re my baby,” she said. “You should come home.”

“Are you gonna get better, Mama?”

“Yes, Deshawn. I’m gonna get better.”

Because he believed her — and because he was only 9 years old — he left his aunt and went back to the burned-out house, which still was not repaired, which is not repaired today, six years later. He went home to a lie, he now says, because his mother was not better, and she was not going to get better. Deshawn says she still takes what little money she gets from the government and disability and spends most of it on crack, hard cocaine pellets that she puts in a stem and lights off the kitchen stove.

“In between she has to drink beer or smoke cigarettes,” he says. “Sometimes she makes me go down the street, knocking on people’s doors, asking for cigarettes. It makes me real mad. It makes me real upset.”

Deshawn shakes his head, looking very young and confused.

Why did he return? he is asked.

“She’s my mother,” he said. “I love her.” A chance to play

“Come on now! There you go!”

Coach Ben Kelso is yelling instructions to players on his basketball team as sneakers squeak on the hardwood floor. The gym at Cooley is a place where dreams of glory mingle with wasted time. There are the kids on the court, and the kids leaning against the wall, some of them in parkas and winter coats, looking as if they were just leaving. But they do not leave. They stare out blankly, hands in pockets, with no particular reason to stay, and no particular reason to go.

“All right, now. Cut! Cut!”

It was Kelso, the smiling legend of Detroit prep basketball — who himself rose from of the muddy poverty of the Deep South — who ultimately got Deshawn off the porch and back into high school. Kelso, 49, first spotted Deshawn in the gym. He admired his intensity. He also noticed that the kid did not like to leave the school. He stayed as long as the building was open. Instinct told Kelso, who has seen hundreds of kids like Deshawn, that something was special about the skinny, serious teenager.

Kelso’s impression was confirmed after Deshawn had a fight with a gang member. An argument had started in a Cooley classroom over nothing, but it smoldered through the day. After school, Deshawn was playing pick-up basketball when the kid appeared, supported by his gang friends.

“I don’t want to fight you,” Deshawn said.

“But I’m gonna fight you,” the kid said.

The kid swung. He missed. Deshawn knocked him down. The kid came up furious, pulled a knife and cut Deshawn on the hand.

Later, when Kelso asked why he wanted to fight in gangs, Deshawn said he didn’t. He was fighting to stay out of gangs.

“I was impressed,” Kelso says. “A lot of kids join gangs for protection. So I knew he had something strong inside him.”

Kelso encouraged Deshawn to play basketball, and the kid, showing a quickness off the dribble and a smooth crossover move to the hoop, made the varsity team as a freshman. Kelso noted the particular joy on Deshawn’s face when he was given his Cooley jersey. Putting that jersey on, Deshawn said later, “was achieving my dream. Everyone knows Cooley is great at basketball. I figure, if I could get on this team, I could do anything.”

So even though he sat on the bench most of last season, he did not complain. A few times he got into games, and one time, in the final minute of an already-sealed victory, he drove to the hoop and laid the ball in. Those were his first two points. By his smile, you’d have thought he had won the NBA championship.

Then, in the early spring, Cooley entered the playoffs. And Deshawn came to Kelso with that troubled look.

“I gotta quit the team, Coach,” he said.

“Why?” Kelso said.

“I gotta take care of my mama.”

“She’s sick?”

“Yeah,” Deshawn said, looking down. “She’s real sick.”

And with that, he was gone, trading in the only bright spot in his youth for that private vigil on the steps of his mother’s house. The junkies, he says, were not hard to turn away; they were weak and desperate and many of them were old beyond their years. They moved on to the next place to get high.

The dealers were a different story.

“This one guy was selling drugs to my mom on credit. She would say, ‘I’ll pay you when I get my check.’ He said OK, so she always owed him money. Then he’d be coming around to collect it.

“One day, I was there waiting for him. He said, ‘Lemme see your mama.’ I was like, ‘Man, why do you sell this stuff to her? It makes her sick.’

“He just laughed and said, ‘It’s not my fault, Deshawn. All she gotta do is say no. It ain’t like I’m forcing it on her. Your mother’s asking for it.’ “

The son burned with that lie about his mother, and he burned with the truth of it as well. The scene at home

It is 2 in the afternoon, and the house is as dark as an attic. The shades are drawn and light bulbs are missing. The front hall staircase is still charred from the fire. It looks ready to collapse. The ceiling paint is peeling, the wood floor is caked with dirt, so thick it is almost a floor of its own. In the front room, parts of an old couch are scattered, edge to edge, like sandbags around a foxhole. There are boxes and broken chairs and wire hangers and a broken ironing board. A fish tank, long empty, sits atop a stack of old magazines. The whole place looks like a hideout. In the far corner of the ceiling, there is a large hole, maybe three feet wide, as if something crashed through it years ago.

“Deshawn’s mama is not feeling good now,” says the man who answers the door. His name is Ben, the closest thing Deshawn has known to a father. An former Chrysler worker, he is in his 60s now, with white hair and a round, weary face, eyes that seem kind enough but never make contact with yours. He takes small steps backward, looking mostly at his feet.

“Is she able to speak, just for a few minutes?” he is asked.

“Well, you see, she’s not here,” he says.

He says this, but he continues to slide backward, moving deeper into the stale air of the house. There are ash trays on the floor, empty bottles, filthy sheets. A few curled photos, yellowed with age, sit on what used to be a mantel. A television flickers without sound, the only evidence of electricity.

The back room, where Deshawn sleeps, has a broken chest of drawers and a cheap black-and-white TV. A poster of Jalen Rose, the Indiana Pacers point guard who grew up just a few miles from there, hangs on the wall above the floppy bed, which is stacked with old jackets, including a navy blue one bearing a muddy white star of the Dallas Cowboys.

“I’m fixing to move us outta here,” Ben says, uncomfortably. “I gotta go see a lawyer about it right now. Maybe you come back tomorrow. Maybe his mom can be here tomorrow.”

She is here right now, though, in the middle of the room, hidden under a blanket on the couch not two feet from where Ben is standing. Eventually, she blows her cover by groaning, then moving beneath the blanket.

Ben looks away. “She’s, uh, not feeling too good,” he whispers. “She hurt her leg.”

In a few minutes, Deshawn’s mother pops her head from beneath the covers and lights a cigarette. Her name is Dorothy, a heavyset woman with round cheeks and narrow lips. She wears a cotton shirt and a pink bandana on her head. She clears her throat, then sizes up the stranger with no visible alarm, as if she is used to strange faces in her house. She makes no mention of pretending to hide.

“Your son,” the visitor mentions.

“Mmm, hmm. ‘Shawn is a good kid. He’s my baby.”

“He’s worried about your drug habit.”

“I ain’t got no habit. ‘Shawn just don’t like it when I get high.”

“How often do you get high?”

“I don’t get high but once a month maybe.” She sniffs. “Once every other month.”

“But using cocaine, do you feel you’re capable of taking care of what a 15-year-old boy needs?”

She blows a mouthful of smoke. “I take care of everything that he needs. I give that boy everything. ‘Shawn’s got a snappy attitude, is all. He think he know everything, but he ain’t but 15. He don’t know everything. He want to tell me who my friends are, just because we get high. He can’t tell me that.”

She scratches her head beneath her bandana. She is 44, she says, but she looks at least 10 years older. She insists that she can stop using cocaine any time she wants. She says she will quit soon. In her squinted eyes is the impatient look held for social workers and bill collectors. Her gaze darts around the room, then comes back. Cold air wafts in from the hole in the ceiling. In the tiny kitchen, which is brown with dirt, all four burners are going on the stove, a sad attempt at a furnace.

“Do you love your son?” she is asked.

” ‘Course I love him.”

“Have you ever seen him play a basketball game?”

She snuffs out the cigarette and coughs. “Basketball is what he’s into now. Maybe next year it’ll be something else.” The power of drugs

Cocaine use in Detroit, according to statistics, has climbed nearly every year since 1981. Crack cocaine, which provides the most intense highs, the most profound lows and the deepest, most maddening addictions, continues to be an enormous problem among this city’s poorest citizens.

This should surprise no one. Nor should it be surprising that kids like Deshawn can’t tell you who or where their natural fathers are. The number of single-parent homes in Detroit is at an all-time high as well.

What might shock people — or perhaps should — is the daily emotional hoist it takes some of our area’s children just to get to school in the morning. The influences, temptations, violence, anger, drugs and guns of the adults who care for these kids can create endless hurdles between their front door and their homeroom desk. And for the most part, because they happen under the family roof, these are stories you never hear about.

“When I come home from school now, I can smell the drugs,” Deshawn says. “I don’t know what they get out of them. I ask some of my mom’s friends sometimes, ‘Why you wanna do that to yourself?’ But they’re just junkies. Sometimes they don’t know what I’m saying. There’s one guy, his face just keeps twitching like this” — Deshawn jerks his cheek and lip in a grotesque motion — “and I’m looking at him like he’s crazy.

“I hate to see my mother with people like that, you know? Last month I said, ‘Come on, Mom. You can get better. Why don’t you stop?’ She said, ‘OK, all right, I’ll do it, yeah, I’m gonna do it.’ She stopped for a little bit in the summertime.”

And what happened?

His eyes drop to the floor. The answer is obvious.

“Do you think it will ever stop?” he is asked.

He says softly, “It ain’t never gonna stop.” A sole survivor

Deshawn Chatman does not want police, and he does not want social workers. He worries that making this story public might get him taken away from his home, something he dreads, even though he admits, “My mama, her drugs and stuff, is the biggest hurdle of my life. If I can deal with that, I can deal with anything.”

He says he has been to the foster homes, and they are not the answer. The answer, for him, is doing well in school and doing well in basketball and trying to get a college scholarship, someplace to play, someplace clean and warm and decent.

He is a good student, carrying a B-minus average. He likes science. He likes English. He has gone to the downtown libraries on his own to read about faraway places. When asked about something he remembers from a recent class, he cites a story from the holocaust titled: “There Is No More News from Auschwitz.”

“All those people killed,” Deshawn says, sadly, “it didn’t make no sense.”

He hooks his fingers together, long narrow fingers he hopes will steer a basketball to a brighter future. For now he has his stepfather, who is drug-free and who pays for things from his disability checks. And he has Kelso, his coach, who endured it all himself as a child and who is a magnet for kids like this, and in many ways, their best guidance.

Deshawn Chatman has never tried the drugs that have hooked his mother. “I don’t want nothing to do with them,” he says, and in the strange code of honor that often exists in impoverished areas, he has been shielded from dealers because of his basketball talent.

His mother is not so lucky. Deshawn has made an agonizing peace with this. “It’s like Coach Kelso and my stepfather say, ‘ ‘Shawn, ain’t no use in you giving up your dream to help your mama. It ain’t gonna help.’

“But sometimes, you know, I wish I could. I love her. She’s still my mom.”

Where he finds such devotion is as big a mystery as why innocent children must suffer.

For now, Deshawn plays basketball, and he stays at school as long as he can, and then he comes home, up the porch where he used to stand guard, where, once, for a few weeks, he was the bravest soldier in the city. He slips inside the rotting door and goes quickly to the back room, past the smoke and junkies, right past his mother sometimes. He lies on his bed, atop the faded jackets that will keep him warm, looks up at the basketball poster, and waits for another night of what some people call childhood to pass.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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