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On a humid morning in late August, Virginia Johnson wakes up just before dawn. She pushes herself upright with her left hand. She can already feel the gout that has settled in it. She looks down and sees that her knuckles are swollen. Holding her hand stiffly, she jabs the television on.

After taking a shower and dressing, she lifts her window shade.

The first customer of the day arrives with the distinctive screech of the gate behind her house. Virginia puts down her cup of instant coffee to see who it is. Kids often swing back and forth on the gate, producing a singsongy sound. But kids don’t play this early, even during the summer. The volume and duration of the high-pitched noise can mean only one thing: Gator is back, acting crazy again.

Gator is a 50-something, semihomeless man who sometimes stays with a cousin who lives down the street. He has what Virginia calls “a mental problem getting him down.” He wanders the streets and alleys of their neighborhood, Trinidad, all night long.

Gator used to stop in Virginia’s front yard every morning for a cup of coffee. She even let him sleep over once when she was worried that he was too delusional for his own good. Back then, she was trying to talk Gator into a hospital. Depending on his mood, Gator can be downright sinister or “comical,” as Virginia says. Once, when Virginia asked him to wash her car, he drove off in it, only to turn up an hour later in front of her house, blaring the car stereo. When she demanded an explanation, he blamed a sudden jones for “New York fried chicken.”

Virginia still looks out for Gator. When a cousin of his comes by one summer evening and says he’s going to “fix” Gator for stealing his money, Virginia looks at the man hard and says, “Don’t do that.”

This morning, Gator doesn’t look as raggedy or angry as usual. Against her better judgment, Virginia opens her back door and calls to him. “Gator!” she says. “Gator! Come around the front.”

Virginia settles into a battered armchair in the front yard of her Holbrook Street NE apartment. Gator takes a seat across from her. He talks in run-on sentences, and she has to piece together what he’s saying. She doesn’t need to hear the whole story, though, to comprehend him. She’s heard it all before.

“I lost my ID,” he mumbles. Last night some time. He isn’t really sure where. The hospital maybe.

Virginia has helped Gator get his “paper trail” back three or four times before. She wishes she had her notes from the last time they had this problem. It strikes her that she could use some intake sheets.

When Virginia arrived in Trinidad, seven years ago, so many people came to her for help that she had to find a way of broadcasting when she was ready for company, when she wanted to be left alone. An “Open”/”Closed” sign was too obvious. “I don’t want to get all formal,” she says. And set hours would be too restrictive.

One of her regulars finally came up with the idea: When Virginia was ready to see people, she would pull up her window shade. And when she wasn’t home or wasn’t feeling social, she would pull it all the way down.

It worked perfectly. For those who understood its logic, the shade brought order. For those who didn’t have a clue, the shade gave nothing away.

The shade doesn’t stop people from “acting slick.” People she has helped have made off with her property, everything from a book of stamps to a total of four cameras. But not everyone who comes to Virginia is trying to get over. Some just want the truth. Like the young lady who comes to see Virginia one afternoon for job-hunting advice. Virginia tells her right off the bat, “You’re overweight. Your teeth need work.” The woman just nods politely.

“Are you still drinkin’ and druggin’?” Virginia asks.

The young lady giggles. “I smoke sometimes,” she answers.

“You don’t need that,” says Virginia. “When you get the feeling, put the money in a jar. That’s a hairdo.”

Virginia has a name for her intensive regimen of counseling: “Grandma’s Camp.” She calls the folks who enroll “clients”—lingo she picked up from the days when she used to work with ex-offenders back in the ’70s, one of many jobs she had before she got too sick to work.

Virginia counts many successful “graduates” of Grandma’s Camp. There’s the teenage boy who wasn’t getting along with his parents. Virginia took him in and convinced him to enlist in the military instead of selling drugs. Then there’s the old Army veteran whom she and a friend found lying in a downtown street nearly unconscious. She took him in, too. His family in Minnesota later came and got him. As for the young woman diagnosed with bad teeth, Virginia helps her get a customer-service job at an airport.

Virginia often complains that she is getting too old to take on any new cases. At 61, she has numerous ailments. They include angina, congestive heart failure, asthma, crippling arthritis, diabetes, brittle-bone disease, cervical cancer (in remission), and high blood pressure. To help control the last, her doctor often tells her she shouldn’t bother worrying too much about other people.

Those doctor’s orders are harder for Virginia to stomach than the dozens of pills she has to take every day. She has a hard time keeping herself from folks like Gator. She even has a secret stash of soap, shaving cream, and razors in her apartment in case “Gator be stinkin’ and stuff.”

Virginia hides the toiletries so none of her five grown children know about them. One of her sons, an electrical engineer who lives in Gaithersburg, gets upset when his mother takes in strangers. He calls her house “Miss Johnson’s shelter.”

“Kids are jealous. I know that,” she says. “That’s why I don’t tell them. My kids don’t want me to take care of anyone else but them.”

A couple of days after the Fourth of July, Virginia made her way to the Safeway in Hechinger Mall with her son-in-law, Ron, a retired D.C. police officer. Though Ron lives in the apartment upstairs from Virginia, she doesn’t usually go shopping with him. They don’t spend much time alone together. The only reason they went out that night was to buy a sheet cake and balloons for Virginia’s daughter and Ron’s wife, Sonjia, who was coming home from prison the next day.

Earlier in the day, Virginia didn’t even think she would be doing this much for Sonjia. When asked if she was planning anything special for Sonjia’s homecoming, she replied, “Please!”

As far as she was concerned, she’d done enough for her oldest daughter.

Sonjia moved out on her own at 18 and embarked on a promising career making eyeglasses. She also became addicted to drugs. Just as Virginia’s health started to take a turn for the worse, she found herself looking after Sonjia’s five children. Once, Virginia even hauled herself home the day after a heart operation to stop D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency from taking Sonjia’s children away.

Virginia has searched for ways to ease her burden. Four years ago, she arranged for two of Sonjia’s kids to live with their former guardian ad litem in Chicago. Last year, Sonjia’s oldest child, now 21, moved out. That left Virginia with Rolanda, 8, and Verlonda, 6. Rolanda is known as Baybay, and Verlonda’s nickname is Poolie. Ron sometimes walks them to school and buys them Christmas presents, but they’re Virginia’s to feed and care for.

Two years ago, Virginia sent Sonjia to the local Safeway with $20. “I was waiting for my Pepsi and my pork skins. Some guys come through the cut,” she says, referring to her back alley. “‘You waitin’ for your daughter? She ain’t comin’ home.’” Virginia learned later that an undercover officer had caught Sonjia with some drugs. A judge released Sonjia and gave her probation. Then, last December, Sonjia failed a drug test and was sentenced to nine months in prison, most of which she served in Tallahassee, Fla.

While in prison, Sonjia went through rehab and, for the first time in years, got clean. At first, Virginia maintained that when Sonjia got out, “I was going to give her back her children and walk away,” she says. “I wanted her to stand on her own two feet.”

Eventually, though, Virginia softened. Sonjia needed her more now, not less. So a cake and balloons, Virginia conceded, would be a good way to cushion her landing.

Early the next morning, Virginia greeted Sonjia as she came in through the back door.

“Hey, Biggums!” Sonjia said, as she wrapped Virginia in a hug and planted a kiss on her forehead.

Sonjia had started calling Virginia Biggums years ago on account of Virginia’s big belly. When Virginia saw that Sonjia had put on weight herself, she returned the favor: “Glad to have you back, Biggums.”

Virginia meant it. She counted Sonjia’s arrival at her door as a small victory. “She could’ve wandered off,” Virginia would say later.

“Hungry?” Virginia asked.

“No. I ate a whole pizza,” Sonjia replied.

Sonjia looked healthy but tired. For much of her trip home, Sonjia, now 40, had been stuck on the bus with a bunch of rowdy kids who didn’t give her a moment’s peace.

Virginia didn’t keep her daughter from her rest. She told Sonjia that she was heading out the door. She had a bus to catch. “I’m going to Midway, to get outta y’all’s hair,” she said.

She left the shade down and made her way to Hechinger Mall to catch the Arriva coach that would take her to the casino at Midway, Del.

Going to Midway to play slots was Virginia’s idea of a day off. But Virginia wasn’t just going for herself. She said later that she had wanted to give Sonjia time to “bond” with her family. She had kept Baybay out of summer school that morning for the same reason. “They don’t know why I went to Midway, but I knew what I was doing,” she says.

Sonjia had been enrolled in Grandma’s Camp.

On a cool evening in early August, Virginia is sitting outside in her yard, “watching people act stupid.” The street in front of her sounds like a carnival. Kids are setting off leftover fireworks from the Fourth. Teenage boys buzz by on dirt bikes. Poolie and Baybay keep crying, “Ma! Grandma! Look!” whenever they get a Hula-Hoop to stay in orbit around their tiny hips for more than 10 seconds. Virginia forbids them to play with the other neighborhood kids, some of whom are tearing up and down the street.

Sonjia is inside doling out pieces of KFC chicken onto plates for everyone. It’s her first time having KFC since she was locked up, and she can’t wait.

Virginia is sticking with her plan “to graduate Sonjia back to her family.” The strategy involves letting Poolie move in with Sonjia and Ron upstairs. Baybay stays with Virginia. She doesn’t think Sonjia can handle two kids yet. Virginia also accompanies Sonjia to her twice-weekly drug tests and brings Sonjia and the girls with her wherever she goes—anything to keep her off the streets.

Virginia is waiting for her piece of chicken in the front yard when an autistic boy stops at her stoop. He’s had a rough day and is choking on his tears.

“How’s Grandma’s boy today?” Virginia asks.

He sputters: “They—made—fun—of—me—I—want—to—kill—them.”

Virginia orders Baybay to get the boy a glass of water. Then she leans forward and says, “Don’t say that. That’s a felony.”

Sonjia comes out with the chicken. The girls shed their Hula-Hoops and sit down in the yard to eat. Ron won’t be joining them, Sonjia says. He’s passed out upstairs.

“Liquor’ll do that to you,” says Virginia.

While Virginia and her family eat, the sky fades from blue to pink to black. When a slender young boy walks past, Virginia calls out to him. “How’s Grandma’s boy? Been good?” she asks.

The boy leans up against her fence. He looks to be no more than 15. “My CSO just came by,” he replies, referring to his probation officer.

Virginia nods with satisfaction.

“Grandma’s eyes on you now,” she says. “Stay out of trouble.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replies, before moving on.

Virginia tracks him for a few seconds. When she turns back, she catches sight of Gator coming down the sidewalk on the other side of the street. She squints, then sits back, frowning. He doesn’t look right to her. She’s going to have a word with him. When he gets closer, she yells: “Gator!”

At the sound of his name, Gator looks up and slowly makes his way across the street. He stops just short of the fence. “I need to talk to you, Gator, later this evening,” Virginia says in a stern voice, her eyes firmly fixed on his. Gator just stares back with a blank expression. He nods and says nothing.

One afternoon in early August, Virginia sits on her futon mattress, going through a pile of mail. That morning, she and Sonjia went to the probation agency so Sonjia could take her drug test. Sonjia got angry because the woman who was taking her urine grew up with her. And Sonjia isn’t allowed to be friends with the person who handles her urine. There wasn’t anyone else there to take it, so she had to go back later in the day.

After Sonjia “peed,” mother and daughter went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to pay off a $100 ticket on Virginia’s car, which doesn’t work and has been sitting behind her house without tags. “Every time I get some extra money, unknown shit happens,” says Virginia, throwing her arms up in the air.

Sitting on her bed, going through her mail, Virginia runs through the rest of the day in her head. “Maybe I’ll let Mr. Belvedere come over,” she says to herself. “He need to get out.”

Belvedere is a formerly homeless man whom Virginia pays a few dollars to come over and scrub the floor or wash clothes. “Nothing too hard,” she says. “Just something to keep him out of trouble.”

Right now, Virginia is attempting to save Belvedere from some domestic woes. The woman he lives with has been giving him grief because she thinks Virginia and Belvedere are lovers. “We been together since 1960, but we never had sex,” Virginia says. “Please! He couldn’t give me some dick if he handed it to me on a platter.”

Virginia says she’s basically been celibate for 40 years: “Best thing a man can do is kiss Miss Johnson on the jaw or on the forehead. Not on the lips—that’s disgusting. Anything go in my mouth, I’m gonna eat it.”

She was married once. She and her husband, Rufus Johnson, divorced when their kids were still young. He died in 1981. The one time she tried to remarry, her fiancé, a D.C. cop, was shot and killed the night before their wedding.

Since then, she’s had numerous “boyfriends,” but no serious love affairs. Her last “friend,” a man named Ivanhoe, used to live in a tent in some woods off Brentwood Road NE. He writes her frequently from prison.

Joe, another of Virginia’s old boyfriends, stopped by last night. He had come by the day before, too; he was mad that she wasn’t home. “He said, ‘I brought dinner for you,’” Virginia says, as she rips into another envelope. “I said, ‘Joe, what’s your problem? Just eat it.’”

The letter in her hand turns out to be a Verizon Wireless bill. She’s baffled by it; she doesn’t own a cell phone. “Looks like someone is using my name again,” she says, as she studies it.

“Shit! He’s using my address!” she yells. “That’s Joe. I’m gonna tell that son of a gun not to use my address for nothin’!”

“That’s why you have to stop helping people,” she says. “They pull all kinds of stuff.”

She tosses the next piece of mail, a newspaper-subscription solicitation. (“I ain’t getting no Wall Street Journal. Shoot.”) And throws a letter hawking death benefits after it. (“Old people mail.”)

Having finished going through her letters, Virginia picks up the phone and dials Ron and Sonjia: “Praise the Lord…where’s your wife?”

Virginia and Sonjia are going to Midway in the morning. Since Sonjia has come back, Virginia has made the Midway trips a more routine part of her schedule, often hopping the gambling bus twice a week. They’ve gone so many times that they have nicknames for the various 5-cent slot machines, such as “Little Green Man,” and “the Chicken.” When they come home from Midway, they spend hours talking about nothing else: which machines were “rigged,” how many times they hit.

Sonjia’s already thinking about her strategy for the next trip. “I’m going to sit in front of that Double Diamond and right next to my Little Green Man,” she says. “I’m going to play both at the same time.”

Virginia has convinced herself that trips to Midway with Sonjia are a valuable component of Grandma’s Camp. She pays Sonjia’s way and even gives her $30 to gamble with. She takes the money out of her limited income, which consists of Social Security, food stamps, and a small check from a federal family-assistance program. “I want to get her to laugh, to break the monotony of where she’s been,” says Virginia.

So far, Virginia is pleased with Sonjia’s progress. “It’s the best time Sonjia has been. She’s thinkin’ good. She’s home,” she says. “The problem with her is she was on the street. She would hit all the purses in the house. Now, I can send her to the store and she’ll bring back the change.”

A couple of days later, Virginia goes to the grocery store, leaving Belvedere behind to clean. When she comes home after an hour, she finds her front door wide open. And Belvedere is nowhere in sight.

Virginia crosses the threshold into her house, drops her bags of groceries on her bed and covers her mouth. Coughing, she stumbles out into the front yard.

The odor gives away the crime: Belvedere has set off a roach bomb.

“I didn’t tell him to do that!” Virginia yells. “I have to sit outside in the yard now.”

Belvedere eventually emerges from the apartment and looks at Virginia sheepishly. He was only trying to get rid of all the roaches—a worthy cause in this apartment. Roaches streak across the walls, run circles in the laundry hamper, and dance on the edge of the refrigerator door. Virginia and the girls are so conditioned to their presence that as soon as they pick up clothes or books from the floor, they shake them.

“Just do what I tell you,” she snaps, still hacking.

“Never satisfied,” Belvedere mumbles as he trudges back inside.

Belvedere’s first name is Henry, but in the 40-some years Virginia has known him, she has always called him Mr. Belvedere. He’s a tall, soft-spoken man with hangdog eyes and hardly any teeth. He has a weakness for spirits, a quality that Virginia hates. She knows when he’s been on a bender because he doesn’t call. When she hasn’t heard from him in a few days, she’ll stand in her kitchen cursing him: “Goddamn Belvedere!”

Belvedere, in turn, does his best to look after Virginia. It was his idea to regulate visitors with the shade. “He get to fussin’ [over guests]: ‘They goin’ past your time. You got to make dinner. Put the kids to bed,’” recalls Virginia.

As far as Virginia is concerned, their relationship is well-defined: What she says goes. Belvedere had the nerve once to tell her she should wear a bra. She wasn’t going to wear anything that squeezed her chest, she said. Not with all her heart problems. And she wasn’t going to paw at a clasp every night and every day because “Belvedere wants women’s titties to stand up.”

A few minutes later, Belvedere brings her a glass of ice. After Virginia takes it from him, she sees that he has his backpack and his cane with him—he’s ready to go. She reaches down for her purse and plops it in her lap. From her wallet, she takes out three dollar bills and hands them over to him.

Belvedere looks at the bills in his hand for a second, then gives her a sly look. “Just enough for a half-pint,” he teases. “Got to get my groove on.”

On a Friday night in mid-August, Virginia is roused from her sleep at 3 a.m. by a ringing phone. It’s Yamise. “She was giving me the fifth degree,” Virginia recounts later.

Yamise is not officially part of Grandma’s Camp. Eight years ago, Virginia offered to baby-sit for her. Yamise has hung around Virginia since then. She calls Virginia nearly every day, often in the middle of the night. At least once a week, she comes over unannounced. Sometimes, she dozes off on Virginia’s couch and ends up spending the night.

Virginia would cut Yamise off altogether, if it weren’t for one problem: Yamise’s “nasty-behind temper,” as she calls it. Virginia has seen its ravages. Three years ago, Yamise’s daughter showed up at school with a swollen face. Yamise lost custody of the daughter to a sister, who later filed for a civil protection order against her. Virginia spends much of her time talking Yamise down.

Virginia is so proficient at disarming Yamise that she can do it in her sleep. One night, for example, Yamise calls at 1 a.m. Virginia picks up the phone and launches into a fit of counseling boilerplate: “You need to work on yourself. You got to use your mind….You got to stay on that yellow brick road. That way you won’t have a wreck with yourself.”

Yamise’s intrusions keep her off the invite list for Virginia’s mid-August cookout.

The barbecue is almost exclusively a family affair. Virginia wants it that way. She’s worried about Sonjia. Sonjia and Ron aren’t getting along. And Virginia fears the stress is going to push Sonjia right back to the streets.

Virginia can tell Sonjia is in a bad mood when Sonjia begins laying into Baybay for misplacing some cash that Ron gave the girl earlier. “You ain’t doing nothing else until you find that money,” Sonjia yells.

To Baybay’s relief, the hot dogs and barbecue chicken are soon ready. Once everyone has a plate, Baybay and the other kids follow Sonjia into Virginia’s apartment to watch a horror movie on Virginia’s new-used large color TV. (Virginia just bought it for $40 from a friend’s son, who, in turn, had bought it for $30 from some Africans on his block who were getting evicted.)

Virginia eats her dinner in the back yard. She’s just finishing when Baybay and Poolie come scrambling out the back door of Virginia’s unit. Ron has fallen, they announce.

“I knew something was wrong. I heard a boom,” says Poolie. “He’s not supposed to drink on his medication.” They head upstairs to Ron and Sonjia’s apartment to see what’s happened.

Poolie is merely repeating what she’s heard Virginia say a dozen times before. While Sonjia was gone, Virginia estimates, Ron fell at least a couple of times. Because Virginia couldn’t scale the back stairs on account of her knees, she would call him to make sure he was OK. If he wasn’t, she would call an ambulance for him.

When Baybay comes down to report that Ron has a gash in his forehead that is bleeding, Virginia orders someone to dial 911.

Within minutes, red lights flash in the alley. Four men carrying equipment come around the corner. As the emergency medical technicians surround Ron in bed, Baybay and Poolie’s two kittens sic themselves on the strangers, scaling their pant legs. The ambush, however, is underwhelming, and the EMTs dispatch their attackers with a yank of fur. Only Ron wishes the cats had won. “You’re giving me a headache,” he tells his visitors.

About 15 minutes later, the paramedics emerge without Ron. His cut, it turns out, doesn’t need stitches. And he’s lucid. He’s also refusing to go to a hospital. So they leave him as he is.

After the ambulance pulls off, Virginia orders the kids to carry any leftovers into the house and throw away the garbage. The night’s festivities are over.

While the kids get ready for bed inside, Virginia takes a moment to sit out in the front yard. Virginia talked with Sonjia about going to Midway the next day. But the cookout has worn her out. When Sonjia asks her what tomorrow looks like for them, Virginia replies: “I don’t know. Ask me in the morning.”

Virginia isn’t looking forward to the beginning of the school year. Baybay and Poolie will have to ride a bus to a school in Southeast while their neighborhood school is being renovated. And, as she often likes to tell people, Virginia was a bus monitor many years ago and knows more than the average person about what happens on a school bus.

The first day parents drop off their kids at Cole Recreation Center to catch the bus turns out just as Virginia predicted: total mayhem. According to the account that she gives a few days later, Virginia gets on the bus, too, so she can register her granddaughters at school. A bus monitor and a security guard are on board to mind the kids. But Virginia can tell they need help. So she pitches in.

“‘Sit your behind down,’” she recalls telling one girl, “‘or I will beat that ass.’”

When another student suggests that corporal punishment is against the law, Virginia can’t argue with her. “I told her, ‘You still have to get by me to get off the bus,’” Virginia says.

A neighbor who drove her child to school gives Virginia a lift home. Within the week, the bus company sends home a list of rules that includes: “No parents allowed on bus.”

Virginia makes her peace with their commute after the daily bus trips continue for a while without incident. She is starting to feel the same way about Sonjia, who has survived the first few months out of prison clean and sober. Sonjia succeeds by sticking close to home. She even shuns block parties lest she run into people from her old life. She talks about returning to school and getting her old job back.

But Sonjia’s tour through Grandma’s Camp has its rough patches. Virginia isn’t happy about paying for Sonjia’s groceries. She doesn’t approve when, during lunch at Wendy’s, Sonjia reaches over and eats Baybay’s French fries. “You let your baby eat first!” Virginia says later. And one day at the slots, Virginia blows up when she suspects Sonjia of siphoning off a few dollars from her jackpot. By September, though, Virginia has come to trust Sonjia enough to plan a trip to Chicago in October. Her grandson wants Virginia to see him play football before the season is out.

Virginia prays that the trip will go more smoothly than it did last year. That time, she had been in Chicago little more than a week when she got a phone call from D.C. Yamise was calling her to tell her that Ron had “asked her for some pussy.”

Virginia went home a few days later.

Virginia reports that Gator’s case is not going well. One night in late August, she wakes at 3 a.m. to the sound of footsteps in her yard. When she peers through her mail slot, she sees Gator standing there. He doesn’t stay long; he wanders over to a neighbor’s stoop, two houses down. Gator doesn’t go inside the neighbor’s gate. Instead, he sits on a step and starts smoking a blunt. After a while, he begins to yell. Something about killing someone.

“The more he smoked, the stupider he got,” Virginia recalls.

Virginia doesn’t know what to do. She calls the police. While she waits for a cruiser to show, she calls Ron. Ron goes looking for Gator. By the time he reaches the mouth of the alley, Gator has moved across the street, still yelling. The police never come.

Virginia is convinced that any day now Gator will wind up either killing someone or getting himself killed. Then he goes and gets himself into a shelter.

What leads him there isn’t Virginia’s nagging but the driving rains and winds of Hurricane Isabel. After spending a few days in the Crummell Shelter, Gator even gets a job for a few days: selling newspapers. For a week at least, no one comes by Virginia’s saying he wants to “fix” Gator for stealing. Gator doesn’t turn up yelling in the street. She doesn’t even mind when he comes by her house in the morning to open and close the gate.

In early October, Virginia agrees to resume helping him get his ID. “Oh Lord. Gator back on my caseload again,” she exclaims. She thinks this time Gator is finally close to getting the help he needs.

Then one night, he turns up on her doorstep again.

The account Virginia gives the next morning goes like this: She’s getting ready for bed when she hears Gator calling for her. She steps out into her yard and listens as he pleads with her to let him in. When she starts to tell him no, he begins begging. “I could tell in his eyes that it was serious,” she recounts. Some men are after him, he explains. Virginia is afraid for him, but she doesn’t want any trouble for herself. “I know they’ll come up in here if they have to,” she says. So she leaves him standing in the yard and closes her door.

Around 3 a.m., the sound of Gator’s wailing wakes her up. When she peers out her front window, she sees a man punch Gator so hard that his eyeglasses go flying clear across the street. Gator’s assailant isn’t alone. Two more men pummel Gator as he writhes on the ground. Virginia calls for an ambulance. The men keep stomping and beating Gator for what feels like hours. Virginia calls upstairs. Ron answers and tells her, “I’m not a police. I’m an ex-police.” He doesn’t get involved in that sort of thing anymore. And if she has any sense, Ron says, neither should she.

When the ambulance finally arrives, Gator’s attackers are gone. The paramedics work on Gator for a half-hour. He goes out on a stretcher. She calls Gator’s elderly mother later to tell her what happened. “You need to do something about him,” Virginia says. “He needs mental help.”

But the old woman has a comeback that Virginia can’t argue with.

“She said, ‘I’ve done all I can….Gator done wore me out,’” says Virginia.

Halloween night, Virginia and Sonjia watch television until about 10 p.m. As she tells it later, Virginia shoos Sonjia out, saying she has to get up early and do laundry. Sonjia retires to her apartment upstairs.

Four hours later, Ron calls to say he’s had a fight with Sonjia. After the dispute, Sonjia stormed out, saying she was going to the store. By 2 a.m., though, she hasn’t returned home. Virginia says she doesn’t want to hear it and hangs up on Ron.

An hour later, the phone rings again. This time, it’s Poolie, still living with Ron and Sonjia. She begs for Virginia to come and collect her. Poolie says she was trying to call her for a while, but she was so scared that she kept misdialing.

Virginia makes her way upstairs. When Virginia sees that Ron has fallen and that there is a bottle of Velicoff in his bed, she takes Poolie home with her. “The baby’s with me until further notice,” Virginia says.

A group of relatives and friends tracks Sonjia down the next evening and brings her home. She’s “fucked up from the floor up,” says Virginia. Sonjia stays a half-hour. Then she takes off.

Sunday fades into Monday. Still no Sonjia. “They go to the store and they don’t come back. That’s what happens,” says Virginia of her daughter’s lapses.

Virginia has returned to her old routine with her grandchildren. “I promised these girls I would see them through no matter what,” Virginia says. “If I got to take care of these children myself, so be it.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.