Random Family is an incredible first-hand account following the lives of several families based out of The Bronx in New York City over a ten-year period. At the heart of this book is the familiar cycle of poverty: teen pregnancies, absentee/imprisoned fathers and harried young mothers who are ill-equipped emotionally and financially to raise kids — some of whom grow up to repeat the cycle.
There was no money, only a Starburst left. “Can I have that?” She asked her father, who then popped it in his mouth. He exaggerated it’s deliciousness. “Bite it,” he said, inviting her to sample the sticky gob on the tip of his tongue.
“Gim-me!” Mercedes cried. Cesar pulled out the gooey and offered it to her, but just as she reached for it, he pulled it back. He teased her with the offer again, and just as she reached for it, he swallowed it and smacked his lips.
In the subtle tyranny of that moment beat the pulse of Cesar’s neighbourhood–the bid for attention, the undercurrent of hostility for so many small needs ignored and unmet, the pleasure of holding power, camouflaged in teasing, the rush of love. Cesar’s three-year-old daughter walked back out into the world and left him behind.
Life is hard in prison and on the outside where the system is a series of speed bumps, hurdles, and roadblocks in the form of appointments and qualifications these women must meet — often with several children in tow — to get food and housing.
The ghetto is a patriarchal society of domineering, often shiftless or imprisoned men whose attention the women compete for.
A lifetime assault of contradictory messages–to be sexy, to respect, that all men were dogs but without them women were nothing–reinforced her sense of powerlessness and futility.
The beautiful thing about this book is the strength and resilience of the young mothers, who despite their hopelessly irresponsible and often violent men and a system practically set up to fail them, most of them “do right” and raise their kids, they best they can. As a reader, you want these women to succeed, you want to see their burdens eased, and you cheer them on.
Here’s an interview with the author, ten years after the publication of the book. This book is a striking, sobering portrait of one sprawling family, though the abject poverty and the system as oppressor are too familiar.