Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx
by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Scribner. 408 pp. $25.00
In Random Family, the journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc traces the lives of a Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx over the course of more than a decade, beginning in the mid-1980’s, at the height of the crack epidemic, and concluding in 2001. Hers is by no means the first account to be written about everyday life in the harsh, insular culture of the inner city during this period, but it is the most detailed, intimate, and extensive—and it will make your jaw drop.
LeBlanc’s title is a bit misleading. Her book explores the lives of a group of people that is only barely recognizable as a family. Its genealogy is less like a tree than a dense thicket of stepfathers, boyfriends, half sisters, cousins, nieces by ex-girlfriends of half brothers, girlfriends of sons of daughters’ fathers, and so on. In the Tremont section of the Bronx, women have children by so many different men and men by so many different women that everyone seems to be related.
Consider Jessica and Coco, the lodestars of LeBlanc’s narrative. Jessica has her first baby at sixteen by a man named Puma, and two more—twins—by Puma’s brother Willy a year and a half later. After being locked up for her involvement in another boyfriend’s drug business, she has more babies—twins again—by a prison guard. As for Coco, she is the mother of two daughters by Jessica’s half brother, Cesar (thus making her Jessica’s “sister-in-law”). In addition to these two children, the first born when she was fifteen, Coco has a daughter by a small-time thug named Wishman, another by an equally disreputable character named Kodak, and a son by Frankie, her live-in drug-dealer boyfriend. All of these babies come with sets of grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins who come in and out of their lives while still managing to inspire genuine feelings of love and loyalty.
LeBlanc’s title is also misleading in another way: this family, such as it is, is not just random; it is capricious, often cruelly so, and especially toward children. Living with her three young daughters in the one-bedroom apartment of her own mother, Jessica would, LeBlanc writes, “head out to the store for milk and not come back for five days.” Usually she is with Boy George, a legendarily successful local drug dealer who keeps a harem of women around the neighborhood. When George feels like making time for Jessica, he often beats her, or worse: once he makes her sobbing daughters do battle in a kind of cockfight and another time he forces her to play Russian roulette with a loaded gun.
Jessica’s half brother Cesar is less sadistic but equally unreliable. Although his feelings for Coco continue over many years, “Cesar did not confuse staying true with fidelity”; one of his many girlfriends even takes to handing him condoms as he goes out the door. Coco herself is the most generous, loving, and trustworthy person in this dystopia, but even she uproots her daughters arbitrarily, smacks them when she is overwhelmed, and allows groups of unsavory male visitors to freeload off their limited stores of food.
For these residents of the South Bronx, chaos is the stuff of everyday life. In one short paragraph early in the book, we read that Jessica, feeling unloved, begins to draw a knife across her thighs, receives as punishment a vicious beating by her mother, overdoses, is rushed to the hospital by her mother’s boyfriend, has her stomach pumped, and, finally, learns that she is pregnant with twins. There are hundreds of paragraphs like this in Random Family, each a bombardment of cocaine, sex, beatings, parties, mother’s ex-boyfriends who stagger in doped up and forget to leave for several weeks, children wandering around sobbing, shouting, punching each other, or piled up in front of the blue glow of the television. By the time Jessica’s oldest daughter is two, she comes down with an infection that shows she has been sexually abused, though no one could possibly guess by whom; there are simply too many people passing through the apartment where she lives, and Jessica gladly engaged the babysitting services of just about all of them.
Still, much as the baby-making practices, violence, and general mayhem of this random family confirm some of the darker stereotypes about the urban poor, the book manages not to read like a brief on underclass dysfunction. LeBlanc shows how individual personality and temperament intersect with the brutal conditions of inner-city poverty to produce familiar human types who might have turned out differently had they developed in more benign circumstances.
One of the more striking figures is Jessica’s sometime boyfriend, Boy George Rivera: a brilliant and powerfully ambitious drug entrepreneur, a kind of Michael Bloomberg of the South Bronx. George, whose father left when he was an infant and whose mother beat him so viciously he ran away by the time he was ten, has been ruthless enough to climb up through the ranks of the local drug business but shrewd enough to avoid touching the stuff himself.
Setting up mills to manufacture his own special brand of heroin, he calls the product “Obsession,” gives it a ritzy logo—a king’s crown—and is soon pulling in half a million dollars a week. He builds a country home with gold-plated bathroom fixtures and a swimming pool whose tiles spell out his initials and depict his trademark crown. He buys a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a Bentley, a Porsche, and a Mercedes, to which he adds $50,000’s worth of James Bond-style accessories.
By the time George is arrested, he has become a Master of the Bronx Universe. Having been advised by a stockbroker and a financial consultant “to diversify his business interests,” he has invested in a water-filtration company and is planning to build a strip mall and to franchise a fast-food chain. Still, despite studying the court transcripts and consulting with his lawyer on strategy with his usual acuteness, this dangerous but gifted thug is sentenced to life imprisonment without hope of parole. At the time, he is twenty-three years old.
Jessica and Coco are examples of the same complex interplay of nature and nurture. Jessica is narcissistic and impulsive, but as hungry for a devoted man as she is ill equipped to find one. Coco, an altogether different woman, has a heart as big as the Bronx and tries to do right by her kids. Yet nothing in her life has given her the remotest idea of how to combine her strengths with the foresight that would make them work to her advantage. She is forever brought down by crises, many of them of her own making. By the end of the book, the eldest daughters of both women appear poised to follow in their mothers’ paths.
Random Family is something rare: a scrupulously honest description of life in the inner city. Avoiding the damp swamps of Jonathan-Kozolstyle sentimentality, Le Blanc makes no effort to underplay the cruelty, betrayal, and neglect that her subjects—people whom she has clearly come to like—visit upon each other and, most awfully, upon their children. With the exception of a few scattered passages of interpretation, LeBlanc has released Jessica, Coco, and the rest of her characters from what must have been her own powerful desire to explain and excuse their behavior. She has allowed them to walk through her book as fully rounded, independent actors.
For the people who inhabit Random Family‘s universe, it is hard to see how most of the well-chewed answers to inner-city poverty could make much of a difference. Sex education? Jessica and Coco’s babies are not unwanted—or wanted, for that matter. Their babies just happen, and, much as the bourgeois mind might consider teen parenthood a personal and social disaster, the view in the inner city is that a baby, no matter how young its mother, is an opportunity for “hoping and growing.” And what good are condoms or birth-control pills for people who have never learned any of the habits of self-discipline that would allow them to use them reliably?
What about “quality day care,” the holy grail of feminist policy advocates? It could indeed bring some temporary benefits: Coco’s daughter thrives in a Head Start program before she is forced to leave because of a serious asthma condition. But how much could five hours a day of Dr. Seuss and “Now I Know My ABC’s” do for a child who spends most of her time with an immature mother, the mother’s drug-dealer boyfriend, and his cronies? Even school reform seems a fool’s errand under these circumstances. How can children living in the domestic equivalent of the median strip of I-95 ever learn to sit still and concentrate?
But when it comes to the bigger social and political picture, Random Family has very real limitations. Jessica and Coco may emerge as somewhat hopeless cases, but they are, after all, just individuals, and LeBlanc makes no effort to indicate how representative they are. One would not know from Random Family that, by 2000, the rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S. had dropped to its lowest level in twenty years or that, since 1995, Hispanic child poverty has declined by a third. Nor, for that matter, do the book’s stories bring into focus the more promising side of life in the South Bronx: the large number of law-abiding, job-holding citizens whose struggle to live decent lives is poisoned by the likes of Boy George, Cesar, and Jessica.
And what about welfare reform, the most dramatic effort in a generation to alter the culture of the inner city? Here Random Family manages to offer a bit of hope. After the new welfare law requires her to find a job, Coco appears briefly buoyed by the routines of the workplace. One can even imagine that, if she did not have to rely for childcare on a troubled preadolescent daughter and a boyfriend who uses the kitchen for bagging crack cocaine, those work habits might bring some long-lasting benefits to her family.
That hope certainly finds considerable support in some of the recent findings about the effects of welfare reform. Such studies will not make a reader’s jaw drop; but in the end they may tell us as much about the condition of today’s American underclass as we learn from the sensational, heart-breaking details of the life of one random family.