Lost in translation
September 20, 2007
Ngan Nguyen wasn't big on the communists, so in 1982, when they weren't looking, she fled Vietnam.
She was determined to get to America to work and send money back to her five siblings and many nieces and nephews.
Hers has been a meager existence on the fringes of the Vietnamese community here, working as a nanny, a house cleaner, often living with the families she worked for. She never married, never took a vacation, never owned a home, because she sent most of the money she earned back to Vietnam.
And for the last few years, she has been homeless. She has been trying to get an apartment through the Boston Housing Authority, and this is where it gets interesting.
Four months ago, the BHA offered her a one-bedroom apartment in East Boston. At least that was what was offered in the BHA letter she showed me. But there was confusion, not surprisingly, because Nguyen does not speak English. Somebody showed Nguyen a studio apartment, and when Nguyen later delivered a paper bag with $500 in cash and $200 in gift certificates to a housing office, the BHA decided this constituted an attempted bribe.
Let me repeat: The BHA believes a 68-year-old homeless woman tried to bribe them so she could get a bigger apartment.
Nguyen's friends - including Kim Pham, a fashion designer who has been letting Nguyen sleep in the fitting booth at her Chinatown shop - said Nguyen was offering a gift, not a bribe. They said it was all a cultural misunderstanding. They said the paper bag contained most of the money she had.
Lydia Agro, a spokeswoman for the BHA, said the case is under investigation by federal authorities. Agro said it was more than just the alleged bribe. "She told us she had no income," Agro said.
According to Nguyen's friends, she has no steady income, but picks up odd jobs where she can.
While no one will say this publicly, there are people at the BHA who think Nguyen is a con artist, that she has bags of money stashed somewhere and that she was not guileless when, on more than one occasion, she left behind for housing officials what former state representative Vinnie Piro once described to an FBI agent as "a little walking-around money."
But people who know Nguyen - not people who have met a confused old woman on the other side of a counter, but people who have known her for many years - scoff at that. They say she has been living hand-to-mouth for years.
Tom Daley, a friend, said Nguyen has been in and out of shelters, which terrify her. "She's no con artist," he said. "She's a little old lady who doesn't understand how this society works."
Donna Agnew, who runs an art gallery in the North End, said that whenever she arranged for Nguyen to clean friends' houses, Nguyen left gifts behind.
"Giving a gift to someone who gives you something is part of this woman's culture," said Agnew. "The idea that she was trying to bribe someone is ridiculous. The communists put her in a reeducation camp. She escapes, makes a life here, and this is how it's going to end?"
The idea that Nguyen was offering a bribe for a bigger apartment looks even more dubious when you consider she gave up a subsidized apartment in Dorchester in 2001 because it was too big.
"She said she knew there were people with kids who needed the space, so she gave it back," said Tin Tran, Pham's son, who translated for Nguyen as we sat in a Buddhist temple in East Boston. "She lives very simply."
No doubt this federal probe, already four months in the making, will be one of the most intensive, thorough investigations in the history of the world.
But here's the bottom line: An elderly woman with bad legs and respiratory problems has been sleeping on floors while the BHA lives up to the well-deserved stereotype of an uncaring, soulless bureaucracy. Marvelous.
When dreams are a lifeboat
September 27, 2007
They are dressed in identical school uniforms: white blouse, blue skirt, white knee socks.
Penny Labadie, 6, is the quiet, thoughtful one; her sister, 5-year-old Abby, is the sassy one.
"Would you like to hear me sing?" Abby asks, her arms folded.
A tiny voice, she launches into a football cheer.
"Firecracker, firecracker, boom boom boom. The boys have the muscles, the girls have the brains."
Penny giggles in between bites of the ready-made macaroni and cheese that her father heated up in the microwave that sits atop a small refrigerator.
The girls are sitting on a bed in a Cambridge motel that is sandwiched between a bowling alley and a long-defunct nightclub. Since Friday, when their family was evicted from their Roxbury Crossing townhouse, this has been home.
Penny and Abby Labadie are blissfully unaware of just how adrift their family is. The motel stay, which has complicated their commute to the Renaissance School in Back Bay, has been sold to them by their parents as a great adventure. The girls seem to buy it, and ask to invite friends over. But they know something is wrong, because their mother, Bedellia Labadie, occasionally weeps. The girls take turns walking over and wrapping themselves around their mom.
Trying to make sense out of why the Labadies are homeless is no easy task. At one level, their eviction, ordered by Judge Marylou Muirhead in Boston Housing Court, was all done by the book. But on closer inspection, you get the sense the books were cooked, that there was no way their rent dispute with Cornerstone Corp., the company that owns 51 percent of the 346-unit Roxse Homes development where they lived the last four years, was going to end in compromise.
Bedellia and her husband, John, believe they are being punished not for late payment of rent, but for being among the tenants who have backed a legal effort to get rid of Cornerstone and its property manager, Linda Evans.
Evans didn't call me back. Bob Russo, Cornerstone's lawyer, was unapologetic for getting the Labadies evicted and denied it was retaliatory.
"We bent over backwards to help this family," he said. "They failed to cooperate. These people flaunted the system. People like the Labadies look at you and smirk. They do a disservice to their family."
Russo said he wasn't on speaking terms with the Labadies' lawyer, David Fried, whom Russo had disqualified from the case on the grounds that Fried's representing the tenants' council in a separate legal matter amounted to a conflict of interest.
"Had he called me up, hey, maybe this could have been worked out," Russo said.
Fried said the Labadies' eviction is part of a pattern of arbitrary and vindictive actions carried out by Cornerstone and pointed out that it comes just weeks before tenants will vote on whether to continue the case against Cornerstone. He says that, if anything, the Labadies paid more rent than they owed, as Cornerstone manipulated the payment schedule to put the Labadies in arrears.
In the end, the amount in dispute was $89, which, by coincidence, is the day-rate posted on the sign outside the motel.
Somewhere along the way, while the adults were squabbling, everybody seemed to forget that the people with the most to lose in this whole sorry saga were those with the least say: Penny and Abby.
The Labadies, who also have a 17-year-old son living with them, have not told their daughters that the motel voucher runs out tomorrow. They have been trying to find a place to live, but don't have enough for a deposit.
Penny turns 7 on Saturday.
"I want to be a designer," Penny says, looking to the ceiling of the motel room as if it were the future.
Abby wants to be a teacher.
"But I'll still sing," she insists.
Two little girls, sitting in a motel in Cambridge, where everything has been taken from them but their dreams.
Clear signs of greed
October 18, 2007
For 34 years, Bill Trowbridge was a sign hanger, one of those guys who puts up billboards.
He started working when he was 17. The company changed names and ownership over the years, from Donnelly, to Ackerley, to AK Media, but it prospered, and Trowbridge and the other guys who wallpapered billboards all over Eastern Massachusetts made a decent living.
Five years ago, the media conglomerate Clear Channel bought the company and tried to make a profitable business more profitable. They offered buyouts that cut the 48 employees in Local 391 of the sign workers in half. But that wasn't enough.
Last March, Clear Channel told the remaining workers that they were unilaterally changing their hours, wages, and benefits. Men who were making $24 an hour, working a 40-hour week, were told they would be paid $15 per sign and would have to hustle to do as many signs as they could, safety be damned, with work hours set arbitrarily by management.
"They brought us in on a Friday and gave us 10 pizzas and some soda and said this was how it was going to be," Trowbridge said, sitting in a Dunkin' Donuts near his Norwell home. "We figured it was a 30 percent pay cut, right off the bat. But it was more than that. Every guy in our local has a family; every guy has kids."
Basically, the company said this: We don't care if a regular schedule and paycheck allowed you to have a family life, because now you belong to us.
For Trowbridge, the change in working hours was a particular hardship, because his wife, Robin, was battling cancer. He had to do a lot for their 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.
On March 19, Trowbridge and 23 others went on strike. Clear Channel brought in replacement workers from across the country. Guys from Texas, Florida, and Georgia came in and took jobs that had been in Massachusetts families for generations. The strikebreakers were paid off in the dark. One said he was making $9 an hour, which apparently is big money back in Texas.
Just before Memorial Day, Clear Channel notified the strikers that even if the strike was settled, they could not have their jobs back. The timing was a nice touch, given that many of the sign hangers are veterans.
It got nasty on the picket lines. Trowbridge got arrested, accused of throwing a bottle at a strikebreaker in Fall River. Trowbridge says he didn't do it. He faces trial next month.
In August, 13 months after she was diagnosed and four months after her husband went on strike, Robin Trowbridge died. She was 42 years old.
"Going out on strike was a blessing in disguise," Bill Trowbridge said. "I was able to be home with my wife. I've been able to help the kids make the transition back to school and all that."
He stared at the cup of coffee in his hands.
"And you know what? The way they treated us, I'm glad to be out of there. If they said tomorrow, `Strike's over, come back,' I don't think I would. I don't want to work for people who treat families like that. This was a successful company, and they gutted it. For what? So the stockholders could make more money? This is all about greed."
The Mays family, the moneybags behind Clear Channel, like to portray themselves as part of the family-values crowd. But if you value your family, you can't work for their billboard company.
Bill Trowbridge was making about $50,000 a year. Mark Mays, the Texas-based Clear Channel president who heads the billboard division of the company founded by his father, was paid more than $5 million last year.
The unemployment checks run out next week, and at this point Trowbridge doesn't know what he'll do to support his kids.
But he does not regret, for a moment, going out.
"I've got to look in the mirror every day," Bill Trowbridge said.
A family seeks answers
October 29, 2007
It was just after noon, Oct. 15, 1994, and Darrell Robinson had just dropped off his girl-friend's jacket at the dry cleaners when they surrounded him on a Roxbury sidewalk.
They shot him so many times he was probably dead before he hit the ground.
He was 26, and when the cops arrived his eyes were still open.
Robinson's sister, Annie Powell-Konyeaso, and his mother, Emma Ross, were in a car on Dudley Street and were trying to drive down East Cottage Street but got turned back by a police cordon.
Had they been able to, they would have driven right by Darrell's body. As it was, they didn't find out until later that evening that Darrell had been killed.
In the 13 years that have lapsed since a detective told them Darrell had been shot to death, his family has not heard a word from anyone in any position of authority.
Not a visit, not a phone call, not a letter.
Not only does Darrell Robinson's killing remain unsolved, his family has received no information about the circumstances surrounding it.
"It hurts. It still hurts," Annie was saying, sitting on the sofa in her Roslindale home while her 13-year-old daughter, Ashley, sat at the dining room table, studying for a test.
According to testimony in an unrelated federal case two years ago, Darrell Robinson fell afoul of a group of Cape Verdean gangbangers led by a guy named Gus Lopes.
After he got caught with guns, Gus Lopes became a government witness and testified that his brother Nardo Lopes and three others - Danny Ortiz, Adielo DaRosa, and Joe Rosa - formed the assassination team that cornered Darrell Robinson on that sidewalk 13 years ago. Gus Lopes testified that he got rid of the weapon used in the killing.
Despite that admission, no one has been charged with Darrell Robinson's killing. His family read about Gus Lopes's testimony in the Globe three months ago and, reluctantly, came forward to ask why nothing has happened.
Robinson's family says it didn't know he had anything to do with the young men who are alleged to have killed him. They say Darrell was smart - he got into Boston Latin School and attended Fisher College - but got hooked on drugs, messing up what looked like a bright future.
He went through rehab and got cleaned up, got a job at a day-care center not far from the spot where he was killed.
He had two kids, a boy and a girl. His daughter, Tiesha, is 20, just got out of college, and wants to open a day-care center.
"As I get older, I think about my dad more," Tiesha said, sitting across from her aunt Annie.
"I think, what would it have been like to have my daddy. Most of all, I want to know what happened to him, and why."
Robinson's family is a big clan, and every two years they gather for a reunion, some 200 of them. They had it at the Sheraton in Back Bay a couple of months ago.
"It's a joyous occasion," Odell Robinson, Darrell's 50-year-old brother, said.
"But you know something? At every reunion, what happened to Darrell comes up, and we all sit there looking at each other and no one knows what to say."
Emma Ross went to her grave last year, consumed by uncertainty.
As she lay on her death bed, she turned to her daughter and asked, "Did they ever catch the ones who killed my baby, my Darrell?"
"No, mama," Annie replied. "They never did."
Annie Powell-Konyeaso knows the police and prosecutors and everybody else who is supposed to speak for the dead are busy.
But she wonders if, to some, her brother just wasn't important enough, just another young African-American man, dead on the street, forgotten.
"Darrell was loved," Annie said, nodding.
"He mattered. He was my brother."
No time for tears
November 5, 2007
When he was born, James Elleyby's eyes were so messed up he could barely see anything.
Then, when he was 6, the lights went out. It was pitch dark, and he was blind as could be.
It was a jail sentence for a little boy.
"The worst part wasn't being blind, it was being forced to stay inside all the time," Elleyby, 24, was saying, sitting in the Oak Bar at the Copley Plaza.
His mother, Shirley, did the best she could. They would sit on the couch in their Brooklyn apartment, watching cartoons, and Shirley would hold two fingers behind his head and have him feel her fingers so he could imagine what Bugs Bunny looked like.
But mostly he was alone, listening to the shrieks of other kids playing outside, rocking in the darkness.
He went to a special school for blind children. He was 15 and Ivory was 14 when they met. She towered over him. It didn't matter. Five years later, they married.
"The only good thing about being blind is that I met my life partner at that school," James said.
Ivory was blind from eye cancer, and they knew there was a good chance their children would be blind.
"Some people said, `Why have kids?' We're still people. We still want a family," James said.
Tammy is 3, Joanne less than a year. Both are blind.
James had the most severe form of corneal disease. While there is no hope for his wife and daughters to gain their sight, he never gave up trying to regain his.
James underwent a half-dozen corneal transplants, but they failed.
Two years ago, he and Roger Harris, a friend who can see, were fooling around on a computer, using a search engine to look for anything they could call hope.
"I was always good on the computer," James said. "I just couldn't see the screen."
They found the name of Dr. Claes Dohlman, a doctor at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary who had developed a technique in which he places artificial corneas in the eyes of those for whom transplants don't work.
James reached out and Dohlman reached back.
Last January, after surgery, Dohlman ripped the patch off and James instinctively covered his face with his hands. Then he blinked and pulled his hands away and realized he could see his fingers. He looked around the room and saw colors, the names of which he hadn't a clue.
He took the bus back to New York and found that Ivory and his little girls were more beautiful than he had imagined. He sat on a couch, snapped his fingers, and watched Joanne crawl toward the sound, toward her daddy.
He got a job - telemarketing, working with computers. He wants to go to law school. He wants to do everything. He believes he can do anything.
A while ago, he got an invitation to come back to Boston, because Dohlman's friends had organized a dinner. Of course, he would come. But what would he bring?
"I don't have any money," James said. "What do you give a man who gave you your sight?"
A few weeks ago, James stepped outside his home in the Bronx. He looked up into the sky and saw something twinkling. He didn't know what it was and asked a neighbor. The neighbor thought James was kidding.
"It's a star, James," the man said. "It's a star."
As he gazed upon a star for the first time, James decided that the best way to show his gratitude was to rent a car and drive 200 miles to Boston, because he could.
And so he did. Dohlman had no idea he was coming. On Friday night, when Claes Dohlman spied James Elleyby sitting at a table in the Copley Plaza, the two men, doctor and patient, embraced.
There was no time for tears because they were so glad to see each other.
A lesson in courage
December 13, 2007
Marvin Garcia was sitting in a big chair on the ninth floor of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, watching the drugs that keep him alive seep from a bag, through an IV line, into his arm.
"I can't feel my fingers," he said. "My whole hand is numb."
That's better than the pain that follows, surely as night follows day, a pain so heavy that his bones ache. Then there's the nausea that washes over him, relentlessly, like waves pounding the beach in a storm.
Marvin Garcia is dying. He cannot beat the cancer that has invaded his body. He can only fight it, and he's giving it hell. He is 37 years old, he has a son, and he wants to live.
His goals, what made him get out of bed every morning, have changed so much since he came here from his native Guatemala on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1993. He got a job at the Marriott Long Wharf, working his way up to catering supervisor. He got married, had a kid, had a dream. But in the spring of 2006, he felt a sharp pain in his stomach. Doctors found a tumor. They also found a rare sarcoma that no one has ever beaten.
The cancer threw him for a loop. He couldn't work. His marriage collapsed. He rented a small, single room in a house on Harvard Street in Dorchester, venturing out for his treatment or to visit his son.
A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of his ninth cycle of chemotherapy, his landlady told him he had to leave his rented room.
"She needs the room back, for her sister," he said. "Her sister's really sick, she's in the hospital, but she's getting out soon and they need the room for her."
He bears his landlady no ill will.
"That's family. You've got to take care of family first," Marvin Garcia said. "I understand."
He has no relatives here. His mother came up from Guatemala to tend to him after his surgery last year. She slept on a cot, in the hospital, for 19 days. But she had to return home.
He could leave his adopted country for his homeland. He would have the succor of family, but not the medical treatment that is keeping him alive, nor the visits with his son that keep him holding on.
The people who have been taking care of Marvin Garcia have been scrambling to find him a place to live. In doing so, they learned something that stunned them: When it comes to finding emergency housing, there is no preference given the terminally ill.
"Marvin's one of those cases that falls through the cracks," said Laura Brigham, his social worker at the hospital. "He's a single male, no minors with him. He's way down the list."
Garcia's physician, Dr. Gregg Fine, says his health will be severely compromised if he is forced into a homeless shelter.
"You can't give someone chemo and send them to a shelter. It just doesn't work that way," said Fine.
As a legal resident, Marvin Garcia possessed an American dream that was limitless. He could do anything. Now he wants only a place where he can rest, where, down the road, his mother can come back to care for him.
It would be easier to give up. No one would blame him. But he would blame himself if he doesn't live every single possible day.
"My boy," he said, smiling weakly. "I can't give up. I have to keep going for my boy, my son. I want to be here for him as long as I can. I can still teach him things."
Eduardo Armani Garcia is 4 years old. His father is determined to teach him one last, great lesson: how to live, and how to die, with something called dignity.
A gift for compassion
December 24, 2007
It's a long drive up from the Cape, but Mary Quin does it without complaint. Eddie is her oldest, her baby, and she loves him the way only a mother can love her firstborn.
"Hi, Ma," Eddie said, climbing into the car.
Eddie is 50 years old, mentally retarded, and smarter than a lot of people. He lives in a group home in Wakefield and works as a janitor at a workshop in Woburn.
Mother and son have a little tradition this time of year. She picks him up, they have lunch, and she takes him to the stores, so he can buy Christmas presents for his brother and sisters.
They were sitting in the China Moon, in Stoneham, waiting for their lunch, when Mary noticed Eddie wasn't himself.
"What's the matter, Eddie?"
"I seen it on TV, Ma," he said. "There was a fire, in Everett, and everybody's house got burned up. There was an oil truck and it crashed and it burned."
Eddie couldn't stop thinking about the people in Everett since he saw it on the news.
"I've got a lot of clothes, Ma," Eddie said. "I've got clothes at my house, and I've got clothes at your house down the Cape. I want to give some of my clothes to those people."
Mary Quin told Eddie that it wasn't clothes that the people in Everett needed. She had heard they needed other things, like money and gift cards.
Eddie thought for a moment. Then he pulled a dog-eared bank book from his back pocket.
"Ma," he said. "Can you take me to the bank?"
At the bank in Wakefield, Eddie told the teller he wanted a check for $25. The teller said she could give him an American Express check, but that it would cost a few dollars extra for the check.
"What do you want the check for?" the teller asked.
And so Eddie told her and then the teller walked over to the bank manager. When the teller came back to the window she told Eddie she wouldn't charge him for the check.
Mary Quin called a telephone number that had been set up to help the people who got burned out in Everett. After she explained what her son had done and that they didn't know where to bring the check, the guy on the other end of the line didn't say anything for a while. Then he asked Mary to wait for a week and to bring Eddie to the Everett Recreation Center at a certain time. Mary asked why they had to wait a week and the guy said he needed to talk to some people first.
So a week went by and Mary drove back up from the Cape, to Wakefield, to get Eddie and they headed to Everett. Mary took Eddie to Sweetser Circle. They got out of the car and stood in front of some rubble that used to be the homes of 13 families.
Eddie turned his head from side to side. He didn't say anything for the longest time. It was freezing.
"Ma," he finally said, "how many people died?"
"Eddie," Mary Quin said, turning to him, grabbing his arm. "Don't you remember? Nobody died. Nobody at all died. It was a miracle."
"Oh, yeah," he said. "A miracle."
When they got to the rec center, there were a lot of people standing around, waiting. They had come to see this man, this wise man, bearing a gift. They had come to see Eddie.
Eddie handed the check to Carlo DeMaria, the mayor-elect, and DeMaria shook his hand, and then Eddie looked up and realized everybody was looking right at him. He knew he had to say something, and so he said the only thing that felt right.
"Merry Christmas, everybody," Eddie Quin said.
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