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I spent today looking at apartments with Manko and her friend Kendra, who’s going to be Manko’s roommate. They’ve been friends since they were twelve. Kendra’s a fine big strapping girl, taller than I am, mature and sensible, hard-working, well-grounded, great sense of humor. Kendra is still living with her mom and her mom’s five younger kids and has been working at the Wal-Mart in Wharton for the past year, and she’s making $700 a month now, although at the moment she has no money at all and barely had enough gas to get here. Manko, of course, has been working for Hollywood Video, although lately they haven’t been giving her more than 12 hours a week, and her bank account is overdrawn. I withdrew enough money from my savings to cover a deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment for the two of them, and off we went, in search of a two-bedroom apartment under $550 a month. We laughed till we cried, and I laughed so hard my cheeks are sore from so much laughter.

We saw some of the worst places I’ve ever seen in my life. Peeling paint, filthy carpets, curtains and broken blinds hanging out of broken windows, swimming pools full of scum and mosquitoes, and parking lots full of glass. Mormon missionaries, pawn shops, liquor stores, check-cashing windows, furniture rental stores. There were thugs shirtless with gold chains hanging around their chests, do-rags on their heads, and baggy shorts hanging off their pubic bones, lounging in the late-spring sun next to dead cars. We’d drive up to Arbor Estates or Brookwood Hollow, circle the parking lot, and decide whether to go in or not. Usually not. At one place where we did go in, the leasing agent took us into an apartment with bags of garbage on the patio. When she opened the closet door, a whole batallion of roaches skittered into the corners. Manko gasped, Kendra giggled, but the agent didn’t miss a beat, “We have pest control every Friday. You have a problem, just call the office, and the very next Friday they’ll be out to spray your place.” We went on.

Of course none of this is literally funny. It is the violent, crude, uncaring underbelly of life in the USA. Unrestrained capitalism has created a world in which it is almost impossible for the poor to survive; in which their creative attempts to survive often land them in jail; in which racism combines with corporate domination to crush the lives out of those who land, for any reason, on the bottom of the American heap. What made our day hilarious is the incredible resilience, wit, and intelligent survival skills of these two remarkable young women. They laugh because they are not broken; they laugh because it’s better than crying; they laugh (and I laugh with them) because they are still young enough and brave enough to find humor in desperate circumstances. If they had children, or if I weren’t here to help them out, the situation would not be funny at all. Their coping skills, and my privilege that enables me to provide, for at least the next few months, a safety net for the two of them, enabled us all to make a lark of the day.

“Oh no,” Manko groaned, “that place is so raggedy it makes ghetto look like Beverly Hills.”

“Them some fine looking boys, though,” Kendra grinned as we drove away.

Manko fired back, “But they be walkin! How they gonna take us out if they walkin? You gonna WALK to the movies? No, girl. We need us some boys that have cars and jobs and shit. I’m not messin with no boy that’s not better off than me. Shoo.”

“I’m just saying they was fine-looking,” Kendra giggled. “I just like to look, me.”

“Well, let’s look somewhere else.” And on we’d go.

Timber Trails. Ashton Court Square. Shadow Brook. Timbers of Buffalo Bayou. Some of these apartment complexes were up in Alief, on the northwest outskirts of Houston, isolated in big fields of weeds and brush and broken glass, dotted with the hulls of burned out cars, down avenues that had no street lights and no public transportation. On our way back into town we passed one really ritzy looking place with double-glazed windows, fresh paint, and attractive balconies. Manko said, “What’s that one called?”

Kendra shot back, “Out of Reach,” and we laughed till I almost ran off the road.

At one place we were joined by another prospective renter who asked if we were getting FEMA assistance or COC. “Neither one,” Manko answered. “Well, shoot,” our informant offered, “ya’all got to get hooked up. I stay runnin in the street, and I can get my boys to get you anything you need.” She gave Manko her cell phone number. When we got back into the car, Kendra snatched the paper with the woman’s phone number on it and balled it up. Manko stared at her, open-mouthed. “She triflin. You not callin her. I don’t trust her half a minute. She the kind of person be sending her boys around to see what you have so she can get them to pick it up. Shoot.”

I gave Kendra a high five, and we drove on. After hours of one slum after another, we finally ended up in Sharpstown (southwest Houston) at a complex Manko and I had visited on Monday. I feel a little nervous about it, but it’s a cut above the rest. The rooms are large and well-proportioned, the kitchens are enormous by comparison with everything else we saw, it’s on a bus line, and Kendra and Manko both loved it. Two bedrooms, one bath; $545 a month.

They don’t accept checks, cards, or cash, so I went off to get a money order while the girls filled out three-page applications. I got back just as the leasing agent began the financial interview.

Employment? Wal-mart. Hollywood Video.
Cash on hand? None.
Savings? None.
Alimony or child support? None.
Disability, SSI, Social Security? None.
Stocks, bonds, investments? Rollicking laughter.

Finally Manko said, “Just put down Broke Heifers dot com.” The agent had been trying to keep her face straight, but she lost it and let herself collapse in laughter.

Responsible family members? Both girls slowly and deliberately rolled their eyes toward me. I played along, turned slowly, and looked behind me. We had become a comedy act, and by now the leasing agent had pulled out a tissue to wipe the tears of laughter out of her eyes.

“But seriously,” the agent said, trying to compose herself, “We might have to get you, mom, to bring us a notarized statement saying that you will guarantee their rent payments.”

“For how long?” I asked, slightly nervous.

“Oh, just for the first few months,” she said. “They’ll have better jobs by then.” Right. Then she added, “Of course we’ll need a copy of your last two pay stubs, and we’ll have to run a background check on you. You’d be amazed how people can look you in the eye and tell you they don’t have a crime record, and then it turns out they’ve got burglary, assault, drugs, even murder! I don’t know how they think they can get away with it.” I ducked my head and felt vaguely flattered by the suggestion that beneath my mild-mannered short-cropped academic head there might beat the brain of a drug moll or a murderer. I don’t think anyone has ever hinted that about me before. I lifted my shoulders a little higher and beamed, although I wonder what happens to mothers (and their children) if the mom does have a criminal record. If she fought back against an abusive man, say. Then how would she (or her children) find a place to live? I imagine the best she could do would be to look the agent in the eye, lie, and hope her name hadn’t made it into the data base the agent was about to check.

The agent ran her credit check on the girls while I was there, and they passed. Neither has ever had any credit, so they don’t have bad credit yet. The apartment’s administrative staff will do the full investigation now (for which we paid a $35 “administration fee”), and they’ll let us know how it turns out. “If you don’t qualify,” she assured us, “we’ll give you back your deposit.” That’s some comfort.

But we left there cheerful, feeling we’ve launched them on their new lives of freedom and whatever else is coming. I’m giving Manko the couch, the dining room table and chairs, some end tables, a coffee table, some book shelves, the kitchen goods, everything from her bedroom, and most of the paintings. Kendra has a bed. She’s going to try to find someone with a truck to help her haul it to Houston. Their move-in date is June 15 to 20, depending on when the apartment can be made ready for them, assuming they (and I) pass muster.

This definitely felt like a ritual moment, so I blessed it as the girls wanted me to: by taking them to McDonald’s.

“Won’t be no more eating out for us,” Kendra said, biting into her Big Mac. “It’s gonna be bread and Ramen, maybe some greens if we can buy the fatback to cook em in. Beans maybe.”

“No, look,” Manko reassured her, “I’m not eatin beans. We’re gonna find us some boys that will take us to McDonald’s. Shoot, we’ll find some that’ll take us to Olive Garden. You wait and see.”

They’re on their way. And it is a brutal, unforgiving world they’re on their way into. There are people with guns out there. There are men who are accustomed to taking what they want. There are women ready to “hook them up” with “boys” who promise to get them whatever they need. Rent is due on the 3rd of the month by 5 p.m. If it’s five minutes late, there’s a $75 penalty. They have to get electricity connected in their names for the first time. That will be another hefty deposit. When they find jobs, Kendra will have to set aside enough money to pay for gas for her car, and Manko will need to save up enough to cover her bus fare so she can get to work. Sand-traps and falling rocks ahead. Peligro. May their sense of humor see them through.

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One response to “BrokeHeifers.Com”

  1. Lynda says:

    Kendall, what a funny, vivid, angry post. How beautifully you’ve captured the resilient humor of your daughter and her friend. And it brought back some old apartment-hunting memories of my own, laughing myself into hysterics, driving right on by without stopping (including the place festooned with “Crime Scene, Do Not Cross” tape). And yet even having spent some large swathes of my adult life more or less broke, it was never, as you point out, that of the truly poor: without credit, without a safety net (even if only in the guise of a grudging friend or family member), without a privileged middle-class grasp of the million invisible social rules and intricacies of the system, from how to conduct oneself in a job interview to how to rent and bank and show proof of credit. And you convey all that in such a warm, funny, human way.

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