How I Became the Bead Lady
It’s a Wednesday evening in late May, and
I’m at the shelter for my weekly workshop, which is officially listed on
the calendar as “Jewelry Making with Janice.” This has been my
shtick for the past two and a half years—every Wednesday evening, I
come uptown to the shelter, and I sit around for a few hours with the
girls of the Older Females Unit making beaded bracelets and necklaces
and earrings. I am known, colloquially, as “Bead Lady,” as in,
“Bead Lady, you got more alphabet beads this week? ’Cause last
week you was runnin’ outa vowels.”
All of the volunteers here have a shtick. Some teach ballet, some
lead prayer circles; theater groups come in to do presentations about
conflict resolution. Out-of-town church choirs give concerts. The Junior
League, a group of young professional women committed to volunteerism,
sends representatives once a week to lead workshops
about things like prenatal health and budgeting. One guy comes in
and supervises pickup basketball games in the gym. There’s a guy
named Carl who’s been volunteering on the Older Females Unit for
the past fifteen years—a white guy, mousy, quiet, and kind. I have no
idea what his shtick is, but the girls seem to like him.
They don’t like everybody. I guess when I started, I thought the
girls would be so grateful for any kind of sympathy or attention that
they’d fall all over the volunteers, but I’ve seen them turn their backs
on a lot of people, watched them size up a bunch of white women in
high-heeled shoes, out to do their annual Good Deed for the Poor
Little Black Girls, and seen them “put it on frost,” as they say, ice up
like snowmen. Because the girls at the shelter do not want your charity.
They did not ask you to come stare at them with your pity, like
they’re some fucked-up zebras at the zoo. They know you have some
reason of your own for coming, whether it’s to burn off your bourgeois
guilt, spread the word of Jesus, or pad your résumé—you’ve got
your shtick, and then you’ve got your angle. What are you doing here,
the girls want to know. Slumming?
They’ll still ask me that, directly or indirectly, the new ones who
haven’t met me before—and there are always new ones, every week.
Every Wednesday evening, I’m missing a few girls from the weeks
before (“Where’s Angela? Where’s Zuzu? Where’s Grenada?”), and
there’s a fresh crop of intakes, girls who watch me warily as I dump
my bead supplies on the table in the lounge.
“What’s this?” they ask, skeptical.
“We’re going to make jewelry. You want to make some?”
Invariably: “Is it free?”
“Yeah, it’s free. You can make earrings, or a necklace, or a
“What about all three?”
That’s when I know I’ve got them. “You can make all three,” I tell
them, smiling. “If you’ve got the patience, I’ve got the time.”
“All right then.” And the chairs scrape back, and I’ll have a table
full of girls sitting with me, just like that, asking for a string “big
enough for my man’s wrist” or “small enough for my baby.”
And soon enough, if it’s an all- or mostly new crowd, between
talking about popular music and cell phone plans and whether or not
you can tell the sex of a baby-to-be by the changing breadth and flatness
of the mother’s nose, the subject will eventually come up: “Miss,
Bead Lady, why you come here like this?”
As it has tonight. Tonight’s asker is a butch girl of about nineteen,
wearing an oversized hockey jersey in black and red, extra-large baggy
jeans belted around the upper thighs, do-rag over her braids, and
cork-sized fake diamond studs in each ear. She is making a blackand-
red bracelet, Blood colors. I always try to dissuade the girls from
making gang beads, to no avail. The bracelet has alphabet beads that
spell rip pookie.
I concentrate on daubing a finished knot with glue. The glue
won’t keep the cheap elastic from snapping, ultimately, but it will
forestall its demise. “Well,” I say, without looking up. “I used to live
here when I was a kid.”
“For real?” asks the butch girl, eyebrows high. “You lived here?”
“Huh,” murmurs someone else. Another girl at the end of the
table elbows her neighbor, Are you listening to this?
I keep my eyes on the knot, blow on the glue. “Yep. When I was
fifteen, I got sick of living with my mother’s husband, so I left home,
and I came here. I was in the minors’ wing for about two months,
then they helped me get into a group home, and I lived there for
about a year.”
“I hate my mother’s husband, too,” offers the girl to my left, the
one with the tattoo of a bleeding rose on her left boob. She hands me
an earring in need of a hook.
“Fuck all of them,” agrees the butch in the hockey jersey, and
turns her attention back to me. “So, wait—so things was messed up at
home, and you came here, and then they hooked you up, and then
things got better? Things is good with you now?”
I bend the hook with my pliers, smiling to myself. Succinctly, yes.
“Things are very good with me now. And I’m really grateful to this
place for helping me get to a place where I can say that.”
She leans back, nods. “So that’s how come you came back.”
I return the hooked earring to the girl with the bloody-rose tattoo,
and she holds it up to her ear, flips her head back and forth like America’s
Next Top Model, emits a little squeal of pleasure. “Pretty much,”
“That’s crazy,” decrees a girl at the end of the table, pale and
haughty, with traces of a Spanish accent. “No offense, miss, but when
I get outa here, I am never coming back. Never.”
“That’s understandable,” I tell her. “I didn’t come back for almost
“So what made you decide to come back, then?” asks the butch
Well, okay. This is a question I’ve asked myself over and over, ever
since I walked through that door again—What made me decide to
come back here, goddamn it? I’d successfully managed to avoid this
place for nineteen years, though I never left New York, never lived
farther than a subway ride away. After purposely staying away for so
long, why did I decide to return to the scene of the crime? Why
couldn’t I just leave well enough alone?
Two and a half years later, I still don’t know the answer. Survivor’s
guilt, I could say, or, because I want to help make a difference. But really,
it was something more selfish than that, something I still can’t
I cut another bracelet length of elastic string, triple-knotting the
“Well, you know how it is,” I tell her, smiling. “I missed the company.”
I’m interested in volunteering here because I’m a former resident of the
shelter, and I want to give something back to the place that helped save
That’s what I wrote on my application almost two and a half years
ago, back in the winter of 2004, when I was all fresh and dewy-eyed. It
had been nineteen years since I’d been inside the building, since the
day I’d left the shelter for the group home, my donated bag full of donated
clothes, a skull and crossbones drawn in eyeliner on my temple,
ready to impress my new roommates with my hard-core stories about
stabbings and lesbians and twelve-year-old hoes. See you, wouldn’t
want to be you. Anymore.
Then there I was again, age thirty-four, in my pinstriped pants
and my good-enough shoes, sitting around the conference table in
the volunteer department with my paperwork in front of me, sneaking
looks at the other prospective candidates: a young white girl with
her hair in braids, looking to earn college credit; a woman in her forties,
also going for college credit; and a bald, muscular guy with a big
tense grin. When the volunteer coordinator asked him why he was interested
in volunteering, he grinned so hard he almost broke a sweat.
“I love kids!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been a foster parent, and I’m
really . . . I love kids. Wanna help ’em out.” Grin, grin.
Creep, I decided, for no good reason. Child molester. It was something
about the muscles; I could picture him shirtless, screaming at
his foster kids while he made them do push-ups. He grinned at me,
and I smiled back weakly.
The volunteer coordinator put on a videotape about the shelter.
“Our crisis center serves two to three thousand kids every year,” said
the narrator. “Without us, they have few alternatives besides the
streets.” One black-and-white photo of a sober-faced kid dissolved
into another: kids leaning against walls, kids lying curled up on the
sidewalk. Then the happy kids, the shelter kids, in color, with smiles
and graduation robes. The music swelled. “With your help,” the narrator
urged, “we can make a difference in their lives. We can give
them more than just food and shelter—we can give them hope.”
Had this place given me hope? I tried to remember. I remembered
the food: white bread, cereal, and milk in the morning; bologna sandwiches
for lunch; meat loaf and mashed potatoes out of the box for dinner.
SpaghettiOs, canned vegetables, vanilla pudding. Never enough
of any of it. I remembered the narrow metal bed frame, and the
scratchy industrial sheets, and the bathroom I shared with six other
girls; I remembered the paneled drop ceiling over my bed. I remembered
the three dollars a week they gave us for spending money, and
how every Friday night the counselors would open up the supply cabinet
and hand out douches, one for every girl.
I remembered the douches. I didn’t know if I remembered the
I frowned, trying to concentrate, but it was distracting, being back
in the building again after all that time, the same building I’d dreaded
and dreamed of for years after I left. That smell—cinder blocks and
construction paper, the ragged, musty, wall-to-wall carpeting, the
heat coming through radiators thick with cracked paint—it hit me
like an old song. Right. The night I came here was windy, it was November;
I was fifteen years old. I walked through those doors downstairs,
went into that office I passed earlier, and talked to my very first
nun, who said, “You can stay here, for now, and we’ll find you a place
There was another nun on the videotape now, saying, “Your first
responsibility with these young people is to listen. First and foremost,
you have to listen to them, and you have to take what they say seriously.
And they may not always be telling the truth—in many cases,
they won’t be; they don’t know how. But even if you don’t believe the
facts of what they’re saying, you still have to believe in them, and believe
that you will eventually get the facts. Believe in them, and listen
to them, and keep listening, and eventually they will tell you the
truth, and they will tell you how to help them, and how to teach them
to help themselves.”
Listen, I wrote in my notebook, and underlined it. That’s what the
first nun did for me, the night I came here. She listened to me, and
she believed me.
Now I remembered the hope.
All the remembering was starting to overwhelm me; I was getting
dizzy from it, from the heat in the close room, crowded with extra dimensions
of time and space. It was nineteen years ago; it was today.
It was in that stairwell right over there, three floors down, those girls
wanted my eyeliner and I gave it to them. It was thick in here, the air
swollen and static, and I knew from experience that the windows
didn’t open. The Ghost of Janice Past was squirming on my lap.
What are we doing here? she wanted to know. And when are we getting
“These young people are suffering,” the nun on the tape continued.
“Suffering from abuse, addiction, poverty, neglect . . .” I twisted
in my chair, tugged the waistband of my pants, slipped my feet out of
my shoes under the table and curled my toes. I could feel the bald
guy grinning from two seats away. “Heightened risk of gang violence,
prostitution, disease . . .” Oh god. Okay! We get it, all right? We’re
here! We’re here, and we’re going to stop all that bad stuff from happening,
so let’s quit talking about it and get to work.
Finally, the tape was over, and the volunteer coordinator switched
on the lights. “Are there any questions?” she asked.
I slumped in my chair, wrung out. The grinning bald guy raised
his hand and asked my question for me. “When can we start?”
I was still flustered when I got back to my apartment that night, pacing
the living room with my three cats in tow, their tails crooked with
curiosity. I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids I’d seen: the young
girl waiting for the elevator with me, carrying her days-old baby,
smaller than a loaf of bread; the two roughnecks on the corner, with
their supersized jeans and their plasticized sneakers shaped like
steam irons—I was three feet away from them when I realized they
weren’t boys. The girl with the pink yarn in her braids, waiting downstairs
in front of the intake office, singing softly to herself, that song
from The Little Mermaid.
I want to be where the people are . . .
Ever since a few weeks ago, when I’d made up my mind to go
back and volunteer, I’d been impatient to start making a difference,
to start digging through that pile of needy kids and helping them, one
by one, until they were all good and helped, and I could relax again,
knowing they were all right. Volunteering felt like something urgent
I’d left undone, something I’d been putting off for years—like the
nightmares I had sometimes, where I’d left the cats neglected and
unfed for a week and was racing home to see if they were still alive.
Now that I’d laid eyes on these kids, I was even more anxious to get
back there to the shelter, to help, to listen and believe, as the nun on
the videotape had said.
I plucked a half-smoked joint out of the ashtray and lit it, swallowing
a deep drag and holding it in my lungs. Such an old habit, my pot
smoking—the only vestige of my drug-addled adolescence. I’d quit
all my other teenage habits long ago—cocaine, ecstasy, acid, thumb
sucking—but now, in my thirties, I continued to smoke pot daily.
Self-medicating, I told myself, against the leftover anxieties of a tumultuous
youth; after what I’d been through as a kid, I figured I was
entitled to smoke as much as I wanted. Besides, everyone said I was
the most productive pothead they’d ever met—I could get up in the
morning, run a few miles on the treadmill, then smoke half a joint
before going to my editorial job; with a few drops of Visine in my
eyes, it seemed that nobody was ever the wiser.
I paced as I smoked, thinking maybe I’d call my boyfriend, Bill;
he should have been home from work by then. I took another long hit
off the joint, put it back in the ashtray, and dialed his apartment in
“Our hero returneth,” answered Bill, his chair squeaking in the
background as he put his feet up on his desk. “So? How did it go?”
I could hear him smiling at me over the phone, could feel it all
the way from Queens. Bill and I had been together for two years already,
after meeting online, and I still couldn’t believe my luck in
finding him, this smart, funny, nerdy, handsome guy who adored
me, whom I adored. I pictured him—his warm hazel eyes behind
his squared-off glasses, his broad shoulders, his long runner’s
legs propped up on his desk next to a stack of comic books and
Macworlds—and I wished we’d made plans for him to come over
“Okay,” I said. “I mean, good. They said my application looked really
good, and my recommendations were strong. So now I just have
to pass the criminal-background check, and then they can place me
on a unit.”
“Excellent,” he said, sounding very satisfied. “That’s great, Shmoo.”
I flopped down on the sofa, disarmed as always by Bill’s support.
Even after two years, it was still hard to get used to the idea that I had
a partner I could lean on and trust, someone who responded to my
plans and ideas with “That’s great, Shmoo,” instead of “Well, the
only problem with that is . . . ,” like the voice inside my head, like
every jerk boyfriend I’d ever had.
“I’m so proud of you,” continued Bill. “You feel good about it,
“Yeah, I feel good. I feel . . .” Tired. I felt tired all of a sudden, like
I’d run out of adrenaline, like it was three in the morning instead of
nine-thirty at night. “I just . . . I don’t know what I’m supposed to do
for these kids. I don’t know what the hell I think I’m doing. I’m not a
social worker, I’m just some person off the street.”
Bill cut right through this, authoritative. “Babe, you’re more than
just some person off the street. You lived there. Nobody’s going to understand
these kids better than you. And they’ll train you, right? I
mean, once you’re placed on a unit”—he threw a little extra relish on
“on a unit,” like I was going to work at Oz Maximum Security Prison,
and I was buoyed for a second by his vicarious excitement—“I’m sure
they’ll give you instructions, tell you how the whole system works.
“I wish you were here,” I said abruptly. “I love you and I miss you
and I wish you were here.”
He paused, restarted carefully. “I wish I was there too, Shmoo.”
All I had to do, I knew, was ask Bill to move in with me, and he
could be there every night. I didn’t know why I was balking. He was
ready to give up his lease in Queens; he was sick of schlepping his
overnight bag to work every other day, of trying not to let the milk in
his fridge go bad, of missing the three cats he and I had adopted together
on nights he spent alone. Two years—that was more than
enough time to decide whether or not you wanted to move in with
somebody, especially in New York, where rent usually dictates the
course of a relationship, and it’s not like I didn’t have enough room;
I had more than enough. I just had to ask him, already.
“Anyway,” I demurred, “I won’t know more until I hear from this
woman Nadine, she’s the head of Older Females. And it might take
her a while; they’re really busy over there.”
“I’m sure they are busy,” said Bill, and yawned. The desk chair
squeaked again; his feet landed back on the floor. “Listen, I’m going
to eat something, maybe throw on the hockey game—you want to
call me back before you go to sleep?”
The nightly before-bed phone call—another amazing feature of
the Bill and Janice deal. I was crazy for not asking him to move in. I
rose from the couch, and the cat on my lap made an exasperated
noise. Me and my wanderlust.
“Yeah, okay,” I told him. “I love you, Shmoo.”
Excerpted from Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum. Copyright © 2008 by Janice Erlbaum. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.